Learning lessons from COVID-19: Exploring the potential of remote learning and working for young people with disabilities
As a new school and academic year gets underway, we are still learning about the effects that the COVID-19 pandemic has had – and continues to have - on education and employment opportunities for diverse groups in society. Research shows that people with disabilities have been particularly negatively affected by the pandemic, having experienced higher rates of illness and mortality from COVID-19 and significant disruptions to a range of supports and services which exacerbated barriers in access to education (Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, 2020; Shakespeare et al., 2022). Concerns have been raised that COVID-19 has significantly intensified already existing educational and employment inequalities experienced by people with disabilities and led to an erosion of their rights (Darmody et al., 2021; Portal et al., 2020). Other commentators however have suggested there is room for optimism. They point to the increased use of virtual technologies during COVID-19 which made it easier for people with disabilities to access and participate in education and training, and to form new spaces of online connection (McCausland et al., 2021; Murphy, 2021).
This question - about whether virtual technologies can support people with disabilities’ participation in education and employment – formed a key part of a small-scale qualitative research project undertaken in ISS21 (Institute for Social Science in the 21st Century), University College Cork, designed to explore how young people with disabilities undertaking skills and vocational training were impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic (Edwards and Harold, 2022). While much attention has focused on the experience of students in secondary and third level education during COVID-19, there has been less focus on how those who were engaged in training outside of traditional educational settings were affected; O’Connor (2021) is one notable exception to this.
The Learning Disrupted Study
Funded by the Irish Research Council and carried out in conjunction with the National Learning Network (NLN), the Learning Disrupted Study explored how young people with intellectual disabilities, mental health support needs, and autistic young people (aged 18-30) attending vocational training programmes at NLN Cork experienced learning during the pandemic. Through a series of interviews and focus groups undertaken between September and December 2021, we spoke to students, family members, NLN staff and employers who provide work placements, about the challenges but also benefits of transitioning to remote learning and working. Eleven online interviews were conducted with NLN students who were enrolled at the time of the first lockdown on the NLN Paces programme, described as a ‘person-centred, exploratory vocational training course’ focused on developing independent living and work skills (Edwards and Harold, 2022: 9). A key aim of the study was also to explore what might be learnt from the experience in terms of providing future supports, including the possibility of remote work placements.
Findings from the Study
In common with other studies, our findings suggest that the initial transition to remote learning and working presented a number of challenges to students at NLN. The pandemic itself was a source of great anxiety for many young people and their families, as in-centre learning and classes had to be paused and work placements stopped. Many students expressed feeling lonely and socially isolated; they struggled with the disruption to day-to-day routines and described how the pandemic was negatively affecting their confidence and the independent living skills they had built up over many months. This impact is well-reflected by one of the students, Joanna (aged 22), who stated:
Covid came and I had to stop. And I was looking for—like I was loving my experience. Of . . .Like I was loving the whole—my new routine, my—you know, before Covid came, and Covid just wiped everything.
Challenges in making the transition to remote learning
Challenges in terms of the shift to remote learning came in many forms. Access to technology was one of these, but a number of other factors made online engagement difficult at times. This included not having a suitable home workspace and trying to keep to a daily routine when learning from home. As John (22) reflected, for example
I thought it was tricky kind of separating the work lifestyle from just leisure, you know.
Challenges also emerged in communicating in the online space of Zoom or MS Teams for remote classes. As Elaine (22) described
We have no idea what to say to each other on a video call sitting at home...It’s very difficult. When we’re in the centre we get on like houses on fire.
An NLN staff member also noted the challenge for students of feeling alone in the physical space of the home even whilst being part of an online group experience:
Like, you know, when you’re in a group environment…you have the communal feel…When you’re on MS Teams…you’re on your own in that room and you do have this feeling that everyone is very much focused on you when you’re talking. So, you know, it isn’t a great forum for our students in some senses to express themselves freely (
These reflections bear witness to the different social relations that take place in the online learning space, where the lack of embodied connection or proximity can sometimes have a chilling effect in terms of communication and the forging of a group identity and dynamics.
While some young people were uncertain about online learning initially, others actively embraced it. Some autistic young people appreciated being able to study online at home in a calm sensory environment, as Sarah (20) said:
I was able to do my normal routine, have my breakfast, do my chores, go downstairs, set up everything down the office, my iPad, my things, my books, my copies, my pencil case, so I guess routine was the positive thing for me.
Emma (22) also stated
I found it easier to keep up with it when it was remote.
It is important therefore that we recognise the diversity of students’ experiences: indeed, while some reported missing face-to-face contact with peers and staff at the NLN centre, others thrived in the context of the home learning environment.
What supported a positive transition to remote learning?
Staff at NLN in particular noted a number of factors that led to more positive transitions in terms of the move to online learning. Appropriate access to technology and regular, informal, individual communication between students and instructors were both seen as crucial in facilitating supportive transitions. A willingness to embrace alternative and innovative modes of teaching and engagement was another key factor. Technology enabled staff to come up with innovative solutions to stay in touch during lockdowns: this included a ‘Wellness Wednesday’ which involved all the students going for individual walks in their area at the same time, connecting virtually as their shared pictures of their walk on WhatsApp. Similarly, while many work placements had to be paused, particularly those in the retail and hospitality sectors, some employers were also able to facilitate remote work experience, enabling young people to stay engaged.
Having a network of trusted supporters for young people was also seen as a key facilitator in managing the transition. As one NLN staff member noted:
Seeing the students who had a supportive family they were so lucky…and then others nothing. So, like, you know, it really wasn’t distributed equally at all. And for, you know, for the students who are living on their own or in group homes it was nice for them to come in to us and like we formed an awful lot of their support network. Yeah, and I felt like that was really stripped away from them and they didn’t have a lot of advocacy through that time (NLN staff member)’.
Such comments highlight the inequities that were illuminated and reinforced by the pandemic, but also the complexity of dynamics generated by home learning environments. For example, amongst the family members we spoke to, many who were providing support were also very conscious of not wanting to intervene in ways which would undermine their son or daughter’s independence and autonomy. As one parent stated
I’m always struggling with myself as ‘the mother’ not to be too involved…I’m really conscious that this is his [thing] – he’s 21.
Discussion and conclusion
Our research raises questions about the potential of online spaces to facilitate wider inclusion for people with disabilities. We cannot assume that technology is an easy fix or a panacea. Quite apart from the issue of the ‘digital divide’ or equity of access to technology, as humans, we react to and engage with technology in different ways. Some young people felt very comfortable communicating in the online space, but others did not. The spaces in which we access technology also affect our experience: trying to study in a busy home environment is quite different to sitting with fellow students in a classroom. In short, there are a range of elements that we have to factor in when thinking about the potential usefulness of online technologies.
This suggests that we need to think critically about how we understand ‘postdigital learning spaces’ (Lamb et al., 2022), and that any future moves to develop remote learning and working need to understand technology as just one part of a holistic education or learning experience which includes wider social relationships, environments, access to resources, and students’ socio-emotional needs. This is perhaps especially important to consider at present as many students negotiate the transition back to face-to-face learning following pandemic measures. Our participants suggested that blended forms of work placements and learning experiences may open up access to education and employment opportunities for people with disabilities. As one employer we interviewed stated, for example:
COVID has shown that we can work remotely...so perhaps something where it’s, you know, it’s shared between remote and onsite might be something we could look at.
However, this very much depends on the availability of resources to promote equity of access to technology; the skills and needs of the individual student; and the willingness of employers and other stakeholders to address specific accommodations that support young people with disabilities in the workplace.
Two key recommendations from the study then are:
- greater resources need to be made available to ensure equity of access to technology for young people with disabilities and their families to support learning
- more government support is required to enable employers to develop their infrastructure and skills to deliver online or blended work placements (including appropriate technology, accommodations in the workplace, and training on how to organise work placements).
Both of these need to happen in a context where learning supports and work placements are flexibly designed for young people with disabilities: as our research discovered, one size does not fit all and supports need to be attuned to the diverse skills and needs of individuals.
If all these things are in place, then we suggest there is cause for optimism. As a member of NLN staff summed up their pandemic experience:
We’ve had to be more creative in what we deliver remotely…But it’s also kind of shown us what other possibilities there are.
Darmody, M., Smyth, E. and Russell, H. (2021) ‘Impacts of the COVID-19 control measures on widening educational inequalities’, Young, 29(4), 366-380.
Edwards, C. and Harold, G. (2022) Learning Disrupted: Young People with Disabilities’ Access to and Experiences of Learning and Workplace-based Training during COVID-19. Cork: University College Cork.
Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (2020) The Impact of COVID-19 on People with Disabilities: Submission by the Irish Human Rights Equality Commission to the Oireachtas Special Committee on COVID-19 Response. Dublin: IHREC.
Lamb, J., Carvalho, L., Gallagher, M., and Knox, J. (2022) ‘The Postdigital Learning Spaces of Higher Education’, Postdigital Science and Education, 4, 1-12.
McCausland, D., Luus, R., McCallion, P., Murphy, E. and McCarron, M. (2021) ‘The impact of COVID-19 on the social inclusion of older adults with an intellectual disability during the first wave of the pandemic in Ireland’, Journal of Intellectual Disability Research, 65 (10), 879-889.
Murphy, R. (2021) ‘Higher education students with disabilities' perceptions of emergency remote learning – exploring the benefits and barriers of e-learning, The AHEAD Journal, Issue 12.
O’Connor, C. (2021) ‘Cocoon and Connectability: A case study of an online learning programme for adults with intellectual disability during the pandemic’, The AHEAD Journal, Issue 12.
Portal, H., Schmidt, G., Crespo Fernández, R., Marcondes, B., Šve?epa, M., Dragi?evi?, V., and Lysaght, D. (2020) Neglect and Discrimination. Multiplied. How Covid-19 affected the rights of people with intellectual disabilities and their families. Brussels: Inclusion Europe. Available at: https://www.inclusion-europe.eu/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/COVID-report-Final.
Shakespeare, T., Watson, T., Brunner, R., Cullingworth, J., Hameed, S., Scherer, N., Pearson, C., and Reichenberger, V. (2022) ‘Disabled people in Britain and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic’, Social Policy and Administration, 56(1), 103-11.