Sterling Heights

COVID-19: How are students with disabilities meeting online learning challenges?

Moving classes online has been a daunting task for students nationwide as education providers close due to COVID-19 concerns, but for Oakland University student Elizabeth*, the transition produced an extra layer of challenges.
Elizabeth has a rare connective tissue disorder that affects her joints, increasing the risk of dislocation. 

“This causes me pain and I have to be careful when doing everyday activities that normal people might not even think about, such as writing and walking,” she says.

No stranger to leveraging technology, Elizabeth uses specially-designed pens to assist her writing and talk-to-text programs on her phone to email professors, but when her management information systems course moved online she didn’t have a computer at home with the programs required.

Elizabeth worked with her university’s disability support services (DSS), as well as student affairs and technology departments on campus to procure a computer with the systems she needed.

“Without all of them working together to help me, I would not have been able to complete this class,” she says. 

Oakland University student housing.
Sarah GuadalupeElizabeth is not the only student facing extra challenges. Nineteen percent of undergraduates in the U.S. identify as having a disability. At Oakland University, 768 students are registered with DSS and director Sarah Guadalupe says her team has been working hard to make sure each student’s individual needs are being met.

“Many students receive testing accommodations, some of which are proctored by DSS,” Guadalupe says. “We are now having to ensure that these accommodations are being provided virtually.”  

“We also worked very closely with our sign language interpreters to ensure students with hearing loss were able to continue to have interpreting services, which are now being provided remotely.”

For high school and elementary students, this transition to a remote (and often more independent) learning style can also be jarring. Across the U.S., approximately 14% of students between the ages of 3 and 21 (around 7 million youth) receive special education services. The US Department of Education admits it may be “unfeasible or unsafe” for some schools to provide services like physical therapy, occupational therapy, or sign language services during the closures.

Advocacy groups in Michigan are concerned for students with disabilities in an education system already strained due to COVID-19 changes, and Detroit Disability Power (DDP) has set up crowd-sourced information for families. 

"The biggest challenges are making sure that all students have the technology needed in order to move forward to an online or distance learning approach," says Teddy Dorsette III, DDP communications manager.

School districts in metro Detroit are required to have distance learning plans developed by April 28 and, according to Dorsette, are required to meet with each student with a disability with an Individualized Education Plan (IEP).

"Some schools are still working on a plan and therefore, aren't providing special education services yet," he says. 

Providing accessibility with closed captioning on videos has been a particular issue for schools. Michigan Hands & Voices, along with the Michigan Department of Education - Low Incidence Outreach program, has developed webinars and tip sheets to help teachers try to meet this need.

In Sterling Heights, the special education department at Warren Consolidated Schools (WCS) is focusing on trying to create structure and consistency during the COVID-19 restrictions, but Superintendent Robert Livernois says the challenges are as much emotional as they are technological. 

“Our students often experience difficulty with emotional regulation which is challenging during a time in our lives when the emotions of all people are variable and intense," Livernois says.

Guadalupe and Livernois agree that communication at a time like this is key, not only to assure students that their accommodations would still be provided for, but to help faculty and staff provide those needs virtually. Regular communication also helps stay emotionally connected.

“We have many students that frequently stop in the office to check-in and just want someone to talk to for a little bit,” she says. “In these cases, we have made ourselves available through email, phone, and virtual meetings.”

That contact is something Utica Community Schools superintendent Christine Johns points to as a major hurdle during COVID-19 closures.

“We struggle with the loss of direct interactions and support that comes through personal contact,” Johns says. “This is especially true for parents of students with special needs.”

UCS staff are using the virtual education platform Schoology to develop IEPs for students with disabilities, and are providing families with guidelines to responsible digital citizenship. 

Johns says it’s “critically important” that parents stay in regular communication with teachers about their children’s needs during the time at home. “We will get through this time by working together.”

For students, the key factor in meeting challenges, says Elizabeth, is knowing when, and who, to ask for help.

“When I reached out and said I had a problem, everyone I spoke to has stepped up and helped me when I had an obstacle that I needed to overcome.” 

*Name withheld for privacy purposes
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Kate Roff is an award-winning freelance writer and journalism educator, currently based out of Detroit. She is the managing editor of Metromode and Model D. Contact her at