It was in 2018. I was in my first year of undergraduate studies at the University of Western Ontario (UWO). I remember feeling intense emotions. I was anxious, stressed, excited, and confused—feelings shared by nearly every student starting out in college. I never anticipated the added challenges of living away from home, especially with multiple sclerosis.
I felt worse than ever. The intervals between my classes were spent taking naps or attending doctor’s appointments at the campus health and wellness center. And after class, I found myself waiting in the emergency room at University Hospital London.
I was falling behind. My grades were low. And all my accessibility advisor had to offer was advice on dropping out of my classes, so I was forced to take a lighter course load. I went from five classes per semester to four, to three and finally to two. No one listened to my concerns. My chronic condition wasn’t going to magically go away or get better, and I didn’t want to spend ten years finishing my undergrad—not that there was anything wrong with that.
Most of my symptoms prevented me from being physically on campus. Especially on the days when I had classes from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., I often had numbness, tingling, severe fatigue, pain, muscle spasms, and pseudo-seizures.
I decided to transfer to the University of Toronto Mississauga, which was closer to home, which allowed me to have extra support from my parents when it came to dropping me off at class, to pick up my homework and take me to doctor’s appointments. I had to transfer because it was almost impossible to do well while staying in my old environment. If I couldn’t attend a lecture or class in person, I had no other option.
When the pandemic began, schools across Canada quickly moved to remote learning. UWO released a statement, like many other universities, announcing that starting the next school day, students would not need to attend classes in person and would instead learn online through platforms like Zoom. Student safety was their “number one priority.”
It didn’t seem to matter when students like me, who are disabled, struggled emotionally and physically to attend classes before the pandemic. Why does “student safety” matter to them now?
If I had an online learning option while at UWO, I wouldn’t have had to drop so many classes and miss so many classes. I could have taken courses from a distance, and instead of falling behind, I would have taken the rest of my class. But no matter how many times I went to the accessibility office, remote learning was never an option.
Not to mention that I always worried about my health. Being severely immunocompromised meant I had to take extra precautions even before Covid-19. If I caught the seasonal flu, I was glued to my pillow for weeks or hooked up to an IV device, receiving fluids. The university didn’t feel the need to protect my health or make sure I was safe at the time.
Virtual solutions can help students with disabilities overcome many of the physical challenges they face in accessing education. Online education for students with disabilities provides them with equitable access because no one has to jostle for space in a crowded theater or struggle to hear a speaker.
And if the countless issues and complaints raised by students with disabilities weren’t enough to demonstrate the importance of remote learning, Nicholas Gelbar, associate research professor at the Neag School of Education, conducted a study to solidify it even further. . Gelbar’s study, published in the Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability, asked college students about the abrupt transition to online education during the spring 2020 semester. After compiling data gathered from 340 responses from students to a survey about their personal remote learning experiences, Gelbar concluded that “[disabled students] were able to change the way they took notes, as they were able to watch a lecture online and then re-watch it.
Universities should consider adding distance learning as an accessibility measure for students with disabilities. In doing so, we make education more accessible to students and create a warm, safe and inclusive institution. And to those who continue or have already fought this, I am with you. Mental health should never be ignored, no matter what your situation.