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Students with learning disabilities tackle online instruction

The switch from in-person to online classes has been challenging for students with learning differences like dyslexia, ADHD and autism.
Illustration by Hailee Schievelbein

Illustration by Hailee Schievelbein

Cole Cooper, a foundations of special education major at the University of Minnesota, prepares for another hour of squinting, confusion and distraction.  As he logs in to his online class, phone notifications, microphone feedback and blurry computer images all fight for his brain’s attention. 

Classes may have transitioned online easily enough, but for University students with learning disabilities, like Cooper, it is more difficult.  

The switch from in-person to online classes has been challenging for students with learning differences like dyslexia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and autism or visual impairments that can impact learning. Some students have created their own coping strategies or have turned to disability resource centers across the University’s five system campuses for help. The centers are still meeting with registered students online, and faculty is still working to provide adaptive technologies and moral support for students with learning disabilities during the pandemic. 

Jeff Baier,Rochester’s Office of Disability Resources coordinator, said that multiple DRCs have seen an increase in need from students with disabilities across the University system. 

However, the centers also provide access to adaptive technologies to help students, such as voice text programs, like Dragon, or visual aid programs provided by DRCs. Some of these adaptive technologies are even being offered for free by DRCs.

Baier, who has ADHD, said that technological advancement is the reason he was able to graduate from high school and be in the position he is in today. 

For students with ADHD, distractions at home and change in routine can cause more anxiety. Ella Pearson, a University senior with ADHD, said that because of anxiety and increased distractions at home, she is now taking her ADHD medication daily. 

Before the transition to online classes last month, she only took it as needed on busy school days. Now, she takes it twice a day to be productive in her academics. 

For autistic students, like Cooper, structure and some personal aid they received on campus are no longer available due to social distancing.

According to Margaret Semrud-Clikeman, a professor in the University’s Department of Pediatrics, many of these learning disabilities are a result of different lobes of the brain functioning differently from a “typical” brain.

“I still remember this one six-year-old saying to me, ‘Dr. Peg, my teacher says that I should just look at this harder,’” Semrud-Clikeman recalls. “He says, ‘How do you look at something harder?’”

For many students, “just trying harder” isn’t enough. “That’s like trying to paint a wall with your hands tied behind your back,” Semrud-Clikeman said. 

Gail Myers, director of the Disability Resource Center on the Crookston campus, emphasized that the most important thing students with learning disabilities can do is take that first step and reach out for help.

With classes being online now, it is even more important that students learn to advocate for themselves, Myers said.

She also urged students to be specific about the help they need, as each individual is unique, so they can be as successful as possible in their classes. 

“People have different needs, and disability happens when those needs are not met by society,” Cooper said. “Disability isn’t something that’s inherently broken about someone, it’s just a different way of being.” 

“Just as people are different gender, different races, religions, whatever. Disability is just a different way of functioning,” Cooper said. 

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