Hands writing on a sticky note with a planner and computer nearby.
Saturday, June 6 - 2020
Donna Paris

Just about everyone at U of T Scarborough has had to adjust to remote learning or working from home. But for two students with disabilities, accessible support was necessary to manage the quick shift and adaptation to online learning.

English major Zehra Seyhun loves meeting new people on campus, attending in-person tutorials and getting immediate access to services. “We’re human beings, and we like socializing,” she says. When everything changed, and the university and students were figuring out how to manage the new normal—including remote learning—help was available to make the adjustment. 

Seyhun is legally blind and English isn’t her first language. Walking in and accessing multiple services immediately was something she was grateful for before the pandemic. “I can still get help now,” she says, “and it's meant learning and navigating new systems with assistive technology.”

Khadija Uddin, team lead and disability consultant with U of T Scarborough AccessAbility Services, says the department had to pivot quickly along with the entire university. “We started daily meetings so we could communicate clearly with the students and give them some certainty in an uncertain time,” she says. The number one priority? “Ensuring that students knew that we were still here, that they still had access to their accommodation and knowing that appointments would still continue virtually.”

The department pulled together “wireside chats” and continues to offer virtual embedded counselling sessions. Working with counterparts at U of T's other two campuses, they developed tip sheets to guide students through the assistive technology available for U of T's online learning platform, Quercus, as well as how to manage mental health when engaging with remote learning. 

For Helen*, a third-year student with a mental health disability studying molecular biology, not having a regular routine has been a challenge—but she has adopted new strategies. “I take on more of a management role, starting with about an hour every day just going into my schedule, organizing and reorganizing, just to make sure I have everything planned and what I should be getting done every day,” she says.

That helps, as does talking things out with her roommates. “I can’t physically go to the centres at school, so when I have to seek out help when I’m feeling overwhelmed, I can make an appointment,” she says. “I try to socialize when I can to make sure that I don't over stress and I can just talk out my thoughts—kind of a group share.”

For some students, the shift to online classes aligned well with their learning needs, says Uddin. “Some students can watch lectures when they want to, and even go over them a few times, whenever they prefer,” she says. But that doesn’t work for everyone. For students who have a concussion, for instance, screen exposure has to be limited, and that is an added challenge that can be navigated with creativity and flexibility with academic deadlines. 

These are stressful times. One thing Seyhun is grateful for now? “Everyone is trying to help each other,” she says. “Human beings are resilient. What has been remarkable to see is all the creativity, the togetherness, the flexibility and the possibilities that have opened up.”

*Name has been changed.