By Arwen Sommer
University classes start back in-person this week, and students will once again have to drag themselves out of bed to get to class. But those with disabilities are hoping the online learning rolled out during the Covid-19 lockdown will continue to be available. They say universities ignored their calls for remote learning for years, and the rapid response to the coronavirus has proven it has been possible all along.
In 2018, long before the days of Covid-19, Hannah was living in university halls in Wellington, away from her family in Christchurch. All of her classes had compulsory attendance, and not a single one was recorded to watch online. Then her illness caught up with her. At her lowest point, she was taking 22 pills a day, to help with the pain and to keep healthy. "I wasn't sleeping. I didn't eat. I would eat a handful of almonds, and that would be what I would go on for a day."
Hannah has a chronic illness called Crohn's disease, which causes inflammation of the digestive tract, leading to symptoms like abdominal pain, severe diarrhoea, fatigue, weight loss and malnutrition. While studying in Wellington Hannah needed to attend regular specialist, testing and dietitian appointments. There was no way for her to schedule everything around lectures.
Hannah feels incredibly frustrated about the speed at which many universities went from saying they can't offer remote learning to providing it within days of the level 4 lockdown announcement.
“It's like, hang on, we're talking about how education is vital for the future, but you're making it selective. There are people suffering. They can't get an education because they physically cannot come in. You're telling us that you couldn't do it because we were in hospital or whatever. But now that everyone needs it, it's suddenly really easy."
Victoria University told Re: in an email that while fully-online courses could have been offered earlier, in a pre-Covid world when physical distancing rules did not apply, a blended approach to learning at university was considered preferable.
Hannah believes her trouble communicating with Victoria University was partly due to her inexperience, as it was her first time dealing with her illness on her own. However, she thinks the uni could have done more to support her, "When I was emailing in sick and having all these surgeries, and I wasn't handing in work, no one noticed. There was just no communication."
Since starting law at Canterbury this year, she has completed most of her course remotely due to having to go into self-isolation early. She has found remote learning much more accessible than going to classes. "It's just the comfort of being somewhere where I can cater to my needs as well as get my work done."
The downside is that she doesn't get to see people as much. But with the lockdown situation, that's inevitable anyway. Ideally she would like to attend university in person, but knowing that if she gets sick or has an appointment she can go home and watch the lectures is a great comfort.
Hannah hopes the measures that universities have put in place for remote learning stay for the long run. "The least they can do is stick with the progress that they've made to provide their education to people who are sick and immunocompromised who need to stay home."
Like Hannah, Wellington student Niamh has found it frustrating to see how easy it's been for universities to switch to remote learning. Not all of her lectures at Victoria were recorded pre-lockdown, so when she had to miss classes, it affected her grades.
She managed to pass, but says it would have been nicer if she'd had the option to learn from home. "When you're in pain, you don't want to leave the house, do you? You feel terrible. You don't want to show up for course, and even if you do show up, you're going to have trouble concentrating."
Last year, Niamh was diagnosed with endometriosis, which is an inflammatory condition where tissue similar to the lining of the uterus is found outside the uterus, which can form lesions, nodules and cysts. This condition causes her a lot of pain every month, which impacts her ability to concentrate in lectures.
For Niamh, having recorded lectures gives her flexibility. She prefers to turn up in person, but on difficult days she can choose to listen later when she has the space to focus. The main challenges for her with remote learning are technology issues.
"Accessing things digitally is a privilege. You have to have working technology, and you have to have access to the internet, which not everybody has at their flat."
Although she is upset it has been so easy for universities to transition to remote learning, she hopes that the transition will be permanent. "I hope this encourages the university to have other methods of engaging, more recorded lectures, and more content available online."
Under Ministry of Health guidelines, a disability can be physical, intellectual or sensory and now covers autism spectrum disorders. New Zealand's disability strategy has identified access to education as a key outcome for people with disabilities, saying that access to mainstream education needs to be inclusive. The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities says people with disabilities need to "receive the support required, within the general education system, to facilitate their effective education".
Chris Bristow is the Otago branch service manager for CCS disability action. The organisation does advocacy work mixed with direct support to around 5000 people nationwide. Chris says there are a number of barriers for disabled people accessing tertiary education throughout New Zealand. "Fundamentally we are talking about an issue where disabled people's rights are being ignored, and discrimination happens far too often."
Chris firmly believes professionals need to take greater care not to inadvertently discriminate because of their own unconscious bias.
"If you're not thinking wider than your knowledge base, you've already disempowered or discriminated against an individual, probably without even realising that you've done it. I'd like to think that people are not being intentional in this situation and that it's just a lack of awareness."
He thinks the sudden availability of remote learning due to Covid-19 has pushed universities to think of a more accessible education system. "I see a brighter future for people and access to education. I think about how people have been turned away, discriminated against, how many, many people have had low expectations or low aspirations placed on them by others.”
“That lack of opportunity leads to a lack of employment opportunities, and also how you see yourself."
He wants to see this opportunity harnessed, and more support for diverse needs brought in. "I don't think it's something you can broadly put a blanket over. People have individual needs that they will require to participate in further education."
So have universities learnt anything from the Covid-19 crisis? Victoria University says they plan to continue with a blended learning model. The University of Canterbury has a range of programmes that are likely to be provided via flexible modes in future. Auckland University says it's very likely they will offer more remote learning options in the future, but they cannot currently confirm what will be available. Waikato University will continue to provide online learning options for all of its programmes for as long as required. It will also continue to develop and increase its previous online learning options.
It's hard to know yet how different the future university learning will be, but it does seem that it's changing for the better, albeit in unfortunate circumstances. For Hannah, “it’s just a waiting game now to see how they go with things. What's it going to be like for disabled students? I'm just interested to see what happens."