‘One size doesn’t fit all’: UP students with disabilities grapple with learning online and offline

Upon finding out she was queer, Hannah Aldeza, 35, wanted to do further research on gender and sexuality. So, upon achieving her undergraduate diploma, she enrolled in UP Diliman (UPD) to get a master’s degree in Women and Development Studies.

Finishing this course means three things for Hannah. One, she’ll be able to learn more about herself, and address questions about her identity that did not have answers.

So sinabi ko sa sarili ko, balang araw, makakapag-aral ako nito, and kung anuman ‘yung tanong masasagot ko kasi alam ko na,” she said.

Two, she’ll be more prepared for the job she is currently seeking —  a gender and development planning officer.

Three, she’ll become the first masters student who is visually impaired to graduate from her department. Hannah has congenital glaucoma, an eye disease that increases pressure in the eyes.

“Iniisip ko lang lagi na ituloy-tuloy mo lang kasi, kahit anong challenge, kahit anong struggle, pagdating sa studies, pagdating sa buhay, hindi naman pwedeng mag-stop ka na lang,” Hannah said. “Welcome ‘yung changes, pero to stop or quit is not an option.”

Academic excellence does not come without challenges, especially for a student with visual impairment who always had to adjust to an education system that grapples with inclusivity.

When she first entered UPD in 2017, Hannah found the campus greatly ill-equipped to accommodate persons with disabilities, particularly students with visual impairment like her.

In 2015, journalist Jhesset Enano reported that buildings in UPD lacked accessibility features like ramps, signages, handrails, user-friendly restrooms and designated parking spots. 

Also, assistive technology like screen readers or closed captioning in audiovisual material are not always provided by the university. Instead, they would have to be shouldered by students themselves.

The Office of the University Registrar told TNP that of 25,078 students in the first semester of A.Y. 2021-2022, 1087 of them have disabilities. 

During the second semester, 974 out of 21,482 were students with disabilities. Some of the disabilities disclosed by the students were impairments in hearing, mobility, speech and sight.

As the COVID-19 pandemic forced the university to transition online, inclusive education is hampered further by challenges, such as inaccessible reading material, and long eye-strenuous online sessions.

For Hannah, exclusivity and inaccessibility only worsened online. 

Unprepared from the start

“Sobrang hindi ganun ‘yung UP eh. Feeling ko hindi ready ang UP for persons with disabilities talaga when it comes to materials na mayroong support for Braille, or totally blind students. Wala. So ako ‘yung bahalang gumawa ng sarili kong way,” Hannah said.

Professors would often give Hannah handouts that never come with Braille, a writing system for people with visual disabilities and impairments. This forces Hannah to have the handouts scanned for text-to-speech apps to read aloud.

But that would only a best case scenario for Hannah. Some class notes have been photocopied so many times that her devices couldn’t recognize the text anymore.

Minsan, hindi lahat ng characters nakukuha sa pags-scan. So kailangan pang i-edit,” she said.

When this happens, Hannah asks a classmate or a family member to recite her handouts aloud instead.

Women and Work Professor Sabrina Gacad, one of Hannah’s teachers before the pandemic, said that it was a collaborative effort to make their class’ learning environment more accommodating.

Yung pinaka-main concern ko, walking into the class, was how do I make learning accessible for a blind student? And I had no idea,” Professor Sabrina said. 

At the start of the semester, Hannah would approach instructors like Professor Sabrina to discuss her needs. She would answer their questions about her blindness, and make arrangements with the professors to help her ease into the class.

“Baliktad eh, I had to learn from her what she needed,” Professor Sabrina said.

Professor Sabrina sought assistance from their college library by requesting .pdf versions of the readings on her references instead of photocopies. 

She added that UP holds trainings on “learning effectiveness,” which are focused on giving high-quality education for different students. The seminars, she added, would cover the concerns of students with disabilities.

Despite such efforts, Professor Sabrina believes there is more to be done, as students with disabilities continue to look for solutions to read learning materials, safely navigate UP, and get the respect they deserve.  

The lack of mobility was also a roadblock during face-to-face classes, as classrooms in UPD are often buildings apart and students are constantly on-the-go to attend sessions.

When this happens, Hannah would try to walk with her classmates to make trips easier. Still, she said, there was no effort on the part of the university to help her learn the locations of facilities even in her own college.

Ever since pumasok ako sa UP, before the pandemic, never nagkaroon ng orientation dito sa college. [Na] ito ‘yung library, ito naman ‘yung mga CR. Kumbaga walang nagturo sakin kung saan [ang mga facility],” she said.

Going to campus, Hannah would avail of rides through car-hailing app Grab all alone. By the time she gets to UP, she would wait for a classmate to arrive so they could go to class together.

Hannah’s struggle in receiving accessible education didn’t stop there. She distinctly remembered a time when towards her was somehow considered a class violation. Every time she entered a classroom, she would remind her professor that she couldn’t see.

[During one discussion], tinabihan ako ng classmate ko kasi may pinapakita siyang (professor) visual aid, ineexplain niya [sa akin] ‘yung concept,” Hannah narrated. 

Suddenly, their professor called them out for talking. “So sinabi ng classmate ko, ‘Prof, dinedescribe ko lang sa kanya ‘yung pinapakita niyo.’ Tapos sabi niya (professor), ‘Ay, nakalimutan ko.’”

Hannah found the professor unfeeling unprepared for having to constantly remind him of her disability. 

“Entitled ako doon as a student with a disability. So I don’t feel or didn’t feel like I was a burden even now, kasi kailangan talaga eh na ibigay nila iyon. Kumbaga, responsibility nila iyon sa students ng college,” she added.

According to Marie Bustos, former chairperson of the Office of the Chancellor’s ad hoc committee on accessibility services, the needs of students with disabilities are covered by the Office of Student Development and Services.

Dr. Marie  told TNP that last semester, a graduate student who was hard of hearing requested help from the university. Dr. Marie and the OSDS provided the student with a sign language interpreter.

“And so, there’s now a template. If there are deaf students, we could do this, so we can have an interpreter on campus,” she said. “The student even approached me to say, ‘Will I also have interpreting services during midyear?’ Most likely he will.”

Dr. Marie said that thinking out of the box is important “because right now, if [a student] says ‘We need services,’ will there be funds for services? Sometimes the answer is no.”

Exclusivity persists online

While some challenges – such as going to different classrooms and reading physical handouts – have been striked out of the equation under the remote learning setup, Hannah’s online learning experience wasn’t any better. 

Since her screen reader could not process Zoom classes, she relies on the copy of the Powerpoint presentations that are given in advance to keep up.

But without the advance handouts, it was a different case. Hannah felt lost at times like these because she wasn’t able to learn the topic beforehand.

Nard Bejo, a second-year student taking secondary education, is also visually impaired with in-born myopia and astigmatism. 

The 20-year-old finds the online learning setup difficult due to the necessity of using his laptop for homework and classes. He would stare at a screen for hours, causing him more eye strains than usual.

Astigmatism is caused by an eye that isn’t completely round, changing how light enters and bends. This makes Nard’s vision blurry and wavy.

It’s common to have astigmatism with myopia, which makes objects look clear when they are near, but blurry when far away. Without his glasses, Nard needs to get one to two inches close to the screen to see a normal 12-to-20-point text.

Nard’s eyesight is expected to worsen over time, according to his doctor. But to decelerate this, he was advised to avoid eye-straining activities such as staring at a computer screen for long periods of time.

But this is a typical day in Nard’s life as a student under the online learning setup, where he attends synchronous sessions that last for over an hour, and assignments done purely online. For Nard, it requires staring at a screen for ten to twelve hours.

Kahit online, gusto ko umattend kasi given Eduk [ako] tapos may math courses pa ako ngayon. Kailangan kong matutunan in real time ‘yung kailangan kong matutunan,” he said.

Since his disability isn’t immediately apparent, Nard says people tend to belittle his experiences. He said he would rather  keep his condition to himself instead.

Nakakarinig ako ng ‘Bakit mo cinoconsider yung sarili mong PWD? May salamin ka naman, apat na nga ‘yung mata mo.’” he said. “Nagsasalamin tayo para maging 20:20 [‘yung vision natin] at least … But it does not mean na wala na tayong disability ‘di ba?”

While some might think remote learning cleared many perennial issues that people who are visually impaired face, many students like Hannah and Nard don’t see it that way.

One size doesn’t fit all

Not all disabilities are evident. Hannah and Nard believe that they don’t need to be physically seen for people to understand their condition, especially when the online learning setup limits students from seeing each other. 

With UP slowly returning to face-to-face classes, Hannah only wishes to have more in-depth sensitivity training for both faculty and staff, which will teach them how to better assist students with different disabilities.

Iba-iba ‘yan eh. Hindi naman one-size-fits-all yung needs namin,” Hannah said. “Bawat disability iba ‘yung need, iba ‘yung challenges, iba ‘yung solution..

The learning setup continues to change, but issues with exclusivity and inaccessibility remain present. For Nard and Hannah, there is more to be done for UP to truly be the school of the people.