The move to online or ‘blended’ learning has been a major adjustment for students with disabilities, with divided opinions on whether the change has been positive or negative for their learning experience.
Alec Turner, a third year English Literature student, told Forge Press that he had mixed feelings about changes to teaching this year.
Turner has dyslexia and dyspraxia which means it takes him longer than typical students to read and understand information.
He said: “While my brain can physically read words, absorbing meaning from them takes longer which means slow reading or re-reading. When having things explained to me, they need to be explained in a very particular way for me to understand the instructions.”
With the shift to online teaching, Turner appreciates the fact that he can now pause or rewind lectures to catch up on typing notes. However, he feels that he is losing out on the more interactive side of face-to-face teaching.
Turner has been provided with a laptop which has software that supports him by reading the words onscreen out loud and checking his work. He said: “This is great! However, once I received the laptop, I have been left alone to cope with the barriers I face.
“I don’t feel very supported by the University in general for my disabilities.
“There are [deadline] extensions and I feel tutors do what they can but the University offers little help. There are some appointments but they are really hard to get and [the Academic Skills Service] 301’s sessions are slightly too simplistic.”
Olivia Blake, MP for Sheffield Hallam and Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Special Educational Needs and Disabilities, is currently leading an inquiry into the impact of Covid-19 on provision for disabled people at all levels of education.
She said to Forge Press: “Before Covid-19, there were already problems with Disabled Students Allowance and accessing support – the support is often badly advertised, the application process is demanding, and often there are problems and delays with accessing appropriate equipment.
“During the pandemic, the Government has failed to show leadership on offering guidance to universities on the transition to online forms of teaching and how this might affect disabled students, or on resourcing those transitions.
“I’ll be pushing the Government hard to deliver for disabled students and fix the problems in the system.”
A spokesperson from the University of Sheffield said: “DDSS has provided a full service online during the pandemic, including appointments, exam arrangements, Learning Support Plans and providing support workers.
“The pandemic circumstances have provided DDSS with an opportunity to develop a more flexible offering which has often worked well for students and which will also be offered in the future to suit users’ needs.
“In any instances where support has been delayed or disrupted, we would always encourage students to contact DDSS so staff can look to resolve the issue as quickly as possible.
“Feedback from our students is very important in making sure we’re meeting their needs and expectations and will always be welcomed.”
DDSS also ran its annual survey in June and saw a 92% approval rating. All respondents were asked to rank how likely they would be to recommend DDSS to a friend and the average score on this question was nine out of ten.
In a community consultation ‘The Big Conversation’ held by Paul Blomfield, MP for Sheffield Central, students from the University of Sheffield and Sheffield Hallam gave feedback on changes to teaching.
Blomfield’s office said it was clear in these meetings that disabled students have been calling for access to online learning for much longer than the start of the Covid-19 crisis, however the current support available falls short of what many require.
They also found that some autistic students and students with ADHD have had to defer a year due to the shift to online learning. Some disabled students are in the at-risk category, making it harder for one-to-one support to be carried out as usual. Some students also found that subtitles during online lectures aren’t always accurate.
But others are more optimistic about the current situation. Luke Nash, Co-Chair of the Disabled and Dyslexic Students Committee (DDS) said to Forge Press:
“I think the University is one of the best in the country, their policies and even actions show this but there are a few niggles in implementation in practice… with Learning Support Plans and accessing DDSS/SAMHS (Disability and Dyslexia Support Service, Student Access to Mental Health Support).
“These are quite long standing issues really and there’s a difference between what is said and what happens in practice.”
Nash said that it is unclear whether these issues are solely down to the University; limited government support, and structural inequalities are also contributing factors.
Images: Alec Turner, David Woolfall