Students with disability accommodations adjust to virtual learning environment


Alanna Reid | Staff Photographer

Lev Ivanov, a sophomore bioengineering major, has ADHD and receives accommodations from the Office of Disability Resources and Services.

By Rashi Ranjan, Senior Staff Writer

Most first-years ask questions about the dining hall food or dorm rooms on their campus tour, but not Taylor Russell. Russell prioritized verifying that Pitt had substantial accommodations for her learning disabilities.

As a student with dyslexia and ADHD, Russell, a first-year neuroscience and psychology major, said she’s thankful that staff from Pitt’s Office of Disability Resources and Services spent ample time assuring her that Pitt would fully support her. Because of this support, Russell said she felt confident committing to Pitt.

“I was able to sit down with someone in DRS and talk through the process of getting and keeping my accommodations in college, which I thought was really, really helpful,” Russell said. “It was really nice that they took the time to sit down with just a potential student.”

For many students like Russell, DRS determines and provides accommodations and services for a variety of disabilities, including learning disabilities. According to the National Institutes of Health, learning disabilities are disorders that affect people’s ability to understand or use spoken or written language, do mathematical calculations, coordinate movements or direct attention.

Students nationwide are finding it more difficult to find support for their learning disabilities because of remote learning — something DRS is working to address. Leigh Culley, director of disability resources and services, said DRS is providing different accommodations, such as increasing time limits on Canvas and other learning platforms. The office is also utilizing a new live transcript feature on Zoom.

“As course design and delivery of instruction continue to evolve, it is necessary that we identify barriers that exist at the intersection of student’s disability and course design, by using a case-by-case analysis with students,” Culley said.

For students to receive any kind of accommodation, a disability specialist — a professional with a master’s degree in fields such as counseling, rehabilitation counseling or social work — considers the DRS student application, documentation from a qualified medical professional and students’ responses during the intake appointment. Culley said every student who registers with the office is assigned a specialist.
Russell said her disability specialist helped her immensely in finding out how to establish accommodations.

“[The Disability Specialist] sat down with me and walked me through what I needed to submit,” Russell said. “I have ADHD and dyslexia, so for my testing accommodations I get 50% extra time, a small group environment and for essays, I get to type them.”

But Russell’s experience with DRS hasn’t been entirely smooth sailing. Russell said the DRS system locked her out of her account for the first three or four weeks of classes this semester — leaving her unable to prove to professors that she needed the accommodations she was asking for.

After being locked out of her account, Russell said she couldn’t select her spring classes in the portal to notify her new professors of her accommodations. Even after emailing her professors and explaining the situation, Russell said they couldn’t grant her accommodations without going through DRS. She noted that professors were quick to reach out about her accommodations in the fall semester, and that she has had a good experience with DRS other than the account lock.

“When I got to campus, I actually went down to their offices, but they’re all working remotely through the semester,” Russell said. “One of my pod mates has been trying to set up an account with them this semester, and she’s had the same issue where it’s really hard to get in contact with them.”

Culley said students may be locked out of their accounts for many reasons, such as not having logged in to the portal for more than a year or not submitting additional documentation to support the request for accommodations. But Russell said she was proactive, contacting DRS a month before fall classes started to set up an account with the office and providing documentation.

Russell said she tried her best to get a hold of DRS, but it was difficult.

“I’d call them and email them, and I just couldn’t get anyone to get back to me until like a couple weeks into the semester, which was pretty frustrating,” Russell said.

Culley said DRS will promptly review a problem a student has communicated. She said even if a file is locked, reactivating it is easy.

“Reactivating a file can be resolved quickly so long as the student communicates with DRS,” Culley said.

Other students have had difficulties with the DRS portal, too. Lev Ivanov, a student with ADHD, said DRS could definitely improve the “archaic” portal. He said small issues make it “annoying,” but not excessively difficult to arrange accommodations.

“When you’re selecting classes for accommodations, they don’t say it’s a recitation or lecture, it’s just the class numbers … small things like that,” Ivanov, a sophomore bioengineering major, said. “We also have to refill out the portal every semester.”

In response to Ivanov’s concern, Culley said students are introduced to the portal in their first appointment and can access “how-to” videos on the DRS website. She added that a staff member can assist students if they have any difficulties.

“DRS regularly evaluates processes and procedures and welcomes feedback from students in order to enhance our services,” Culley said.

Students must fill out the portal every semester to notify professors of the accommodations they need. Ivanov said when students select the classes for which they would like accommodations in their DRS portal, emails are automatically sent to the respective professors.

While DRS approves accommodations on a timely basis, Ivanov said applying them to classes was more challenging because professors, not DRS, must manually add the accommodations to assignments and assessments.

“Most of the time, my professors did email me like, ‘Hey, just checking in, I got your DRS letter,’” Ivanov said. “But like I said, it wasn’t all the time. A couple of times, I’ve literally emailed my professors 10 minutes before the exam like, I’m trying to get my extra time and Canvas does not say I have that time.”

Besides the inconveniences surrounding the portal, Ivanov has had minimal problems with DRS since signing up last semester. When Ivanov first reached out to DRS, he said he knew what accommodations would help him succeed — namely, increased time on assessments — so the process with DRS was “simple.”

“Once [DRS] receives the paperwork from your provider and it’s approved, you can log in to your portal and apply for services,” Ivanov said. “The final step for getting approval is you have to get on a phone call with them. I think I was pretty lucky because it took five seconds — I was like, I just want extra time. And she said they could do that right away.”

Russell said while getting in contact with DRS can be difficult, her individual DRS adviser makes the experience much better.

“The individual DRS advisers — at least mine — are the best. She’s amazing, and once I can get in contact with her, she’ll go through everything she has to do,” Russell said. “But I think getting registered and getting in contact with them is a little harder than it should be.”

DRS is operating remotely on weekdays from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Students can make an appointment by calling 412-648-7890.