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Pandemic leaves students with disabilities disconnected from peers and short on support

Navigating school this fall has meant a host of new challenges for learners with disabilities, with both students and families often having to advocate anew to receive the same supports and accommodations they received before the pandemic.

Rana Nasrazadani completed her undergraduate degree at Toronto’s York University in January, so she escaped last spring’s sudden pivot to emergency remote learning. This fall, however, as she began her graduate studies, she’s found things more difficult and impersonal.

Gone are the commute to campus and vibrant in-person group work with classmates. In their place are lectures on Zoom, no break between home and school, and online collaborative sessions kept to a short time frame to prevent video-conferencing overload. 

Where Nasrazadani previously had in-person conversations with professors about her accessibility and accommodation requirements, “this year, it was mostly just reading the syllabus by myself and then just seeing where I might need more support,” she said.

“Now you’re just sending an email and just letting them know ahead of time.”

WATCH | What some students with disabilities faced this fall 


Rana Nasrazadani, an accessibility and education advocate, describes what she and some other students with disabilities have faced this fall term amid the pandemic. 1:54

But it’s been hard to anticipate and plan for everything, said Nasrazadani, so she’s just going through the experience and raising concerns along the way. She’s personally had good responses from her professors this term, but some of her peers have not.  

“For the most part, it seems like most students, including me, have to take initiative on their own to to figure out what we need,” said Nasrazadani, also an accessibility and education advocate who serves as a student representative for Ontario’s K-12 education standards development committee.

She’s concerned about stories she’s hearing from peers — and from younger students and families — not getting what they need or unable to access the same educational supports they had before the pandemic, fuelling worries that learners with disabilities are being impeded from moving forward with their education.

“Making sure that students are still being able to get what they need during this time is integral,” Nasrazadani said.

rana nasrazadani
York University graduate student Rana Nasrazadani is an accessibility and education advocate serving on Ontario’s K-12 education standards development committee. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

‘It just hasn’t really measured up’

Sahvana Downes and her nine-year-old son Jaxson, who is attending virtual school in Toronto this fall, have not had a good experience this term. The youngster, who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), could count on “a lot of support and a lot of resources” at school prior to the pandemic, said Downes. 

“Frankly, those have not translated into virtual learning and into his virtual classroom,” she said. “I expected the same quality education, the same consistency that we see in physical school in the virtual schools and it just hasn’t really measured up.” 

The stress and anxiety of falling behind is weighing on Jaxson, she said.

He “worries about, when he returns to school [in-person], if he’s going to be caught up or if he’s going to be behind…. That’s absolutely my worry as well.”

covid edu sahvana downes
Sahvana Downes helps her son Jaxson, 9, with work for his virtual classroom. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Inconsistency between online classrooms has been frustrating for Downes, a child and youth worker for an autism support program who is currently at home overseeing Jaxson and two other children in virtual school. 

Where she saw little change after flagging concerns about her son’s situation, “the other two students I’m working with, their teachers have made like a really good effort to create these accommodations for children. But the problem is that is teacher-specific and those are not board-wide implementations.”

Thanks to her prior work experience in education, she’s been able to make adjustments to Jaxson’s schooling — cutting down on his screen time, for instance, and adapting assignments to be done offline — but she acknowledges that not every parent has the ability to supervise, support or advocate for their child in the same way. 

“The general attitude is like this year doesn’t count. It counts to me, it counts to my son and it counts to a lot of children.” 

‘Don’t wait until all this is over’

The pandemic has indeed shifted more weight and responsibility onto the shoulders of families of students with disabilities and learning challenges, according to Delphine Rule.

The Toronto mom of three has turned her experience researching supports for her sons Toby and Liam — who have learning disabilities, ADHD and anxiety — into an educational advocacy services organization. Access to Education shares resources for learners with disabilities and aids families trying to figure out education plans.

special needs education
Education advocate Delphine Rule, centre, catches up with her son Liam, 9, as her elder son Toby, 11, prepares to start a social skills therapy session delivered online due to the pandemic. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

The pandemic has forced “these experts, these people who work with our children and support us as families … to move their systems online,” Rule said.

This has often meant parents or other in-home caregivers have in turn become de facto facilitators for online lessons, therapy sessions, workshops or meetings. Rule, for instance, has added tech troubleshooter to the list of jobs she juggles.  

“Our kids are having to learn and we’re having to support them — and that can raise everybody in the house’s anxiety.” 

Rule also pointed out that not every support translates to our current pandemic reality of online video sessions, which some families might not be able to access in the first place.

“For those kids for whom it works, it can be beneficial,” she said.

“Every household is going to be different, every child is going to be different … not all kids can access it the same way.”

WATCH | Don’t wait until after the pandemic to seek help, says educational services advocate 


‘Just because we’re in this does not mean we need to wait to access supports or find out about what is available,’ says Delphine Rule, whose two older children have learning disabilities, ADHD and anxiety. 1:05

Despite difficulties at the moment, however, Rule encourages families and students to speak up about educational concerns with teachers and administrators at school, as well as to press on with learning support services, even if they’re not exactly operating as usual. 

“If you are thinking you need to get on a list for something, don’t wait for all of this to be over: contact those agencies, contact the services that you want,” she said.

“Many of these agencies and clinics and places that offer support for students are open through referral or are open through email or phone to at least start conversations…. It doesn’t hurt to have a conversation.” 

amanda whiting and amber
Amanda Whiting reads with her daughter Amber at their home in Edmonton. Whiting has transitioned to homeschooling the 13-year-old this fall. (Submitted by Amanda Whiting)

For Edmonton parent Amanda Whiting, the recent years of experience in her daughter’s education ultimately led to home-schooling this fall.

Amber Whiting, 13, has ADHD, dyslexia and health issues that require periodic hospital visits. Though she progressed quickly in a specialized school and had been working through the challenges of integration into a regular classroom last year, the family’s struggle with remote learning this past spring sealed the deal. 

“In an ideal world, every child would get to learn the way that they learn best and the way that they can be most successful in their learning,” Whiting said.

“We’ve been so lucky to have such great teachers for Amber over the years and yet, at the same time, she’s a unique individual. Whether it’s during a pandemic or not, she needs to learn in a way that’s unique to her.”

Nasrazadani, the accessibility and education advocate, is working to share student voices with the provincial education committee, as well as two subgroups she’s also participating in.

“We’re all going through a pandemic, so it is difficult. But I do hope that professors and those at schools understand that students are trying their very best navigating this time.”

amber and caius
Amber Whiting, seen with her older brother Caius standing next to her, shifted to being homeschooled this fall amid the pandemic. (Submitted by Amanda Whiting)

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