First-year college students across the country experienced the failings of public education during their senior year of high school as the world shifted to online education. It took some adjustment, but eight months later many are peacefully adjusting to the second semester of school in a pandemic. For some students, though, things aren’t much better than they were when the pandemic started. The public education system is leaving a great number of students behind. This fall, remote learning became a choice for students in Utah. However, it’s easy to forget that for many there was no choice to be made. The majority of disabled students were forced to stay home instead of attending in-person classes because the underlying medical conditions that accompany their disabilities put them at a high-risk for COVID-19. These students are truly experiencing the pandemic as having fatal consequences. They are uniquely disadvantaged by the shortcomings of online education, which points to larger structural problems we face as a country — and it’s time to address them.
Online education has widely varied and wide-ranging impacts on students with disabilities. For example, students have felt even more stressed and anxious than they do in traditional school years — a lack of social connection has exacerbated negative mindsets for all of us. Those with learning disabilities feel the effects of this change more than their neurotypical peers, given that virtual education was not created with disabled students in mind. The gap between students with disabilities and those without is expanding all over the world because of COVID-19-driven changes to teaching and learning.
The laws that give students with disabilities the right to an individualized education have not been met or enforced since the beginning of the pandemic. Thus, students with disabilities are not receiving a remote education that is specific to their learning needs. Kimberly A. Caputo, a special education law expert, rightly insists that “individualization still has to happen, and that individualization is tied to the child, not to the pandemic.” The pandemic is not an excuse for ignoring disabled students’ legal rights. The fact of its being taken as such is unacceptable and an obvious failing of the public education system.
In addition to the structural failings of online education, there are logistical challenges as well. For example, many parents lack the time and resources to provide special education to their children. In school, students have access to physical therapy and assistive technology that is not available remotely. Likewise, the online platforms used to provide a remote education are not guaranteed to have accessibility features.
But the lack of support students with disabilities are experiencing now are just echoes of the lack of support they have received for generations. Further, remote learning is emphasizing the insufficient care society grants to marginalized people who also fall within the disabled community. For example, Black girls with disabilities are being disproportionately incarcerated due to disability-related behaviors and a lack of participation in online classes. In other words, the effects of the pandemic are not felt equally — some disabled people are suffering in a way that others are not because of their intersectional identities.
Additionally, gaping disparities in socioeconomic status breed inequities in online special education. Disabled, socioeconomically disadvantaged students face overwhelming inconsistencies in terms of parental support, access to technology and their daily learning environment. But many also are unsure of where their next meal will come from, or whether it will come at all. School leaders and tech developers need to keep these compounding circumstances in mind as they reimagine how remote special education should look.
In order to combat these glaring structural issues, students in remote learning — especially those with disabilities — must be given the resources and support they need to triumph in this unprecedented time. First, state and federal governments should issue a clear statement on the critical importance of meeting disabled students’ needs through Individualized Education Programs and fund schools’ efforts to provide accessible and inclusive education. States must also invest in online learning programs focused on helping students with disabilities achieve academic success. These online programs must have accessibility features such as text to speech, closed captioning and keyboard shortcuts to accommodate all individual needs.
Whatever happens with the pandemic, disabled students need our ongoing support. Let’s give it to them.