COVID-19 has made education more accessible for university students with mobility disabilities

While many able-bodied university students have found the switch to remote learning stressful, those with mobility disabilities have seen their lives made easier. But they worry the progress will be lost when in-person learning returns.

'Our access to education should matter,' said one student

'I have to choose between my safety and my education,' said Concordia University student Alicia-Ann Pauld. (Submitted by Alicia-Ann Pauld)

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, it was a struggle for Alicia-Ann Pauld, who has muscular dystrophy, to get to Concordia University's campus in downtown Montreal, especially during the winter.

"If I fall, I can very seriously injure myself and I can't get back [up] on my own," said Pauld. "I've been in situations in the past where there's a snowstorm the day of an exam and I have to go outside and literally put my life in danger."

She recalled an incident last year, when she fell on the ice on the way to one of her exams. "I injured myself a lot and I had to wait for someone to pick me up — a stranger."

When the pandemic hit last March, universities quickly moved online. Lectures were given over Zoom or were recorded online as campuses shut down.

For Pauld, it was a gift. She no longer had to choose between her health and her education.

While the shift to the virtual world has been a source of distress for university students in general, it has been a revelation for many students living with disabilities and chronic illnesses.

But with universities saying they are preparing for some form of in-class instruction in the fall, many students living with disabilities wonder what the future holds.

'I can't always get to class'

Concordia told CBC that "public health conditions permitting, we are looking at a hybrid model of remote and in-person instruction" for the fall of 2021.

McGill University has already announced it will return to in-person instruction at that time, but that it will make accommodations for students who need them.

Concordia University in Montreal says it is considering a hybrid model of in-person and remote learning for the fall. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

"Students with a weakened immune system or chronic condition that may be at risk of developing complications to COVID-19 should work or study from home if possible," McGill said in a statement. If activities require students to be on campus, they are supposed to contact their faculty's student affairs office to work something out.

Students with disabilities and chronic illnesses are worried about losing the progress the pandemic has brought, in terms of providing more accessible education.

"I can't always get to class, due to a combination of just, like, the building not always being super-accessible and the classroom not being accessible," said Aaron Ansuini, an art education student at Concordia who has Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a multi-systemic connective tissue disorder that often affects his mobility.

Improving academic success

As an ambulatory wheelchair user, it is often difficult for Ansuini to attend classes, so he misses important course content.

"I've been encouraged to drop classes when I physically can't get to them, despite the fact that I maintain a 4.0 GPA," Ansuini told CBC Montreal's Daybreak.

Before the pandemic, both Ansuini and Pauld sometimes had to miss classes and drop courses, which hurt their academic success. That's why remote learning has been so beneficial to them.

"My only chance of graduating on time is [online learning], because it's the only way that I could actually do all the classes, all five classes that I know that I can do," said Ansuini.

"My classes are going great," said Pauld, "I had such a high GPA last semester and I know this is what I'm capable of doing."

Concordia University student Aaron Ansuini says returning to ‘normal’ is not equitable for students with mobility disabilities. (Submitted by Aaron Ansuini)

While many students are looking forward to a return to normality, a return to how things were pre-pandemic is not ideal to students with mobility disabilities. 

"What's normal for most people [is] ... not exactly equitable for students with disabilities," said Ansuini.

"So I'm concerned about people returning to normal and not realizing that what they're actually returning to is just an inequitable access to education."

Pressure worldwide

A 2018 report from the National Education Association of Disabled Students, in collaboration with Canadian researchers, concluded that accessibility and inclusion lag behind technological advances.

Canadian students aren't the only ones who are feeling it.

Students at the University of Washington, for example, are pushing their administration to continue to make class recordings available online even though the school has already opened its campus to students.

They argue the current lack of access creates an unequal education system between students who are able-bodied and those with disabilities.

Students with disabilities at Trinity College Dublin in Ireland made their case to the administration by documenting their experiences with remote learning.

Now, with its campus reopen,Trinity College Dublin has implemented a hybrid model of remote learning and in-person instruction.

For Pauld, the fact that Concordia says it is looking at a hybrid model of education is promising, but she would like to see every single class be part of such a model.

"So that students who have to attend remotely for different reasons can have access to that, with no exception," she said.

Pauld and Ansuini are hoping that the pandemic is proof that accommodations at school, as well as in the workplace, are possible for people with disabilities.

"We are not some sort of other or some sort of anomaly," said Ansuini. "We're just part of the student population and our access to education should matter."

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

Five closed fists are raised under heading "Being Black In Canada"

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