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Students with disabilities, staff adjust to remote learning amid coronavirus

Melissa Gatti misses the Green.

“I loved walking around campus, seeing the activities going on,” said the first-year computer and information sciences major, who is part of the University of Delaware Center for Disabilities Studies’ Spectrum Scholars program for undergraduates with autism. However, with her daily commute to campus replaced by instant connection via Zoom and Canvas, Gatti found an unexpected space in her schedule for a social skills workshop she had been previously unable to attend.

Lizzy Phillips is also creating silver linings. In her first year of CDS’s Career and Life Studies Certificate (CLSC) program for students with intellectual disabilities, Phillips is keeping up with her clubs, including Support Our Troops and the Native American Student Alliance. She’s even organizing her own events, like a digital “Mary Poppins Returns” screening for several friends.

Remote learning in the era of coronavirus is “less than ideal,” said CLSC Program Manager Jay Sellers, but “we approach the experience as a uniquely valuable one.” As they navigate their new digital reality, students and staff in CDS’s two college transition programs are honing an essential skill: adaptability.

“That’s the whole point of the transition program,” Sellers said. “Learning how to enter new environments and carry your transferable skills with you.”

Melissa Gatti, a first-year UD student in CDS’s Spectrum Scholars program, appears on a Zoom call with her peer mentor, senior Sofia Mazza (inset).

Spectrum Scholars, a collaboration between UD and JPMorgan Chase, offers a system of support and career exploration opportunities to select undergraduates with autism. These include weekly get-togethers with peer mentors and twice-weekly one-on-one meetings with a point coach to reflect and set goals. Gatti has found her goals barely changed — she’s still aiming to make the dean’s list, find scholarships to apply for and reach out to professors with questions or concerns.

Spectrum Scholars Program Manager Pam Lubbers said that students’ self-advocacy, along with clear, direct communication from professors, is helping to smooth the adjustment. Even acts viewed as “easy” by some, such as emailing a professor or calling IT for tech support, can represent important learning opportunities. “Every college student has to have that ability to bounce back when things don’t go exactly as planned,” said Lubbers.

Phillips, who was homeschooled in grades 3–12, said the skills she developed then are helping her handle remote learning. While staying on top of classwork was “a little bit hard at first,” her bigger concern was “going a little bit into panic mode when I heard about the coronavirus hitting UD. But I learned to stay calm,” she said.

Igbal Attaelmanan is a Career and Life Studies Certificate program assistant for academic and career exploration.

CLSC students take several undergraduate classes during their time on campus as part of a curriculum that also includes learning job skills and daily living skills, as well as engaging as part of the campus community. Igbal Attaelmanan, the CLSC program assistant for academic and career exploration, said that shifting coursework online was a challenge.

“The first few weeks were really hard,” said Attaelmanan, “and all [the CLSC staff] did was try to maintain consistency, keeping a routine. But even when we are struggling, we do our best to maintain a ‘push forward’ attitude.’ Our students really took that to heart.”

A majority of CLSC students had to push forward when UD closed its campus. They were living in residence halls – an option that has been available to CLSC students for several years – but like the vast majority of UD students, they moved back home.

CLSC’s approach to career preparation has seen big changes, too. Usually, students start an internship in the spring semester of their first year, which continues through the second year. By the time they graduate, students will have applied for a job — either the same they held as interns or another that’s an even better fit. However, during the coronavirus pandemic, students do not have the opportunity to get first-hand experience on job sites. Instead they are doing more reflection and research on the career paths that interest them. They are also brushing up on job search skills, including sitting for mock interviews conducted over Zoom by staff from across the UD campus.

Spectrum Scholars is working with campus partners as well. Instructional coach Wes Garton and consultant Vince Varrassi are collaborating with the Office of Academic Enrichment on virtual note-taking and time management workshops open to the general student body. Program staff have also worked with the Center for Counseling and Student Development to present the Program for the Education and Enrichment of Relational Skills (PEERS) — the social relationships workshop Gatti was able to join — for students with autism.

Lubbers said these cross-campus collaborations “ensure that each Spectrum Scholar continues to be served comprehensively, while we continue to promote autism acceptance and inclusion across campus. We didn’t want any of those benefits to stop just because of the coronavirus.”

Sofia Mazza, a UD senior, said she feels those benefits acutely during the lockdown. Mazza is Gatti’s peer mentor and her PEERS social coach, which means they chat over Zoom every few days.

“Talking to Melissa is one of the highlights of my week,” said Mazza. “We talk about things she’s discovered. It’s a little pick-me-up throughout these weird times.”

Attaelmanan recalls getting a pick-me-up of her own on a gloomy morning a couple weeks ago: “I had a student lecture me on, ‘Let’s not think about the negatives right now. Let’s just get through this.’ ”

“Moments like that are what will keep us going,” Attaelmanan said.

 Photos courtesy of Lizzy Phillips, Melissa Gatti and Igbal Attaelmanan |

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