How the pandemic has affected disabled students (includes video story)

Students with disabilities are a demographic that have been drastically affected by COVID-19 and the ensuing lockdowns. The dangers of exposure and the struggles of remote learning have taken a toll on them, according to testimonies by disabled students and their teachers and therapists. 

Samantha Duran, 22, is a University of Miami student who has chronic bronchitis. 

“If I walk more than usual, I’m out of breath. If I climb the stairs, I’m out of breath — stuff like that. And I can’t run,” Duran explained. “If people with healthy lungs experience an exacerbated shortness of breath [with COVID-19], then imagine how bad it would be for someone who already has a respiratory disease.”

Duran wears a full-face elastomeric respiratory mask with an N-95 filter that cost her nearly $200 in order to protect herself in public. She said she is afraid to return to classes, once remote options are no longer available. 

“Coronavirus is extremely deadly, and it’s disproportionately affecting disabled people,” Duran said. “It’s immoral not to take care of yourself to the extent that disabled people are taking care of themselves in order to not die. It should be a cumulative action.”

Raelyn Shields, 28, is the lead kindergarten teacher at Keys Gate Charter School, where classes offer accommodations to students with disabilities. According to Shields, teachers at Keys Gate typically have between two to four students with disabilities within each class, out of 23 to 24 students per class.

Accommodations are still offered in their virtual classroom settings, but there are limitations to what can be accomplished over Zoom. 

“At home he’s by himself, but he’s not getting that direct one-on-one teaching and instruction that he would get from me.”

Before Shields became a teacher, she worked in behavioral therapy. “I know the importance of not forgetting or leaving behind those certain students that need that little extra help.”

Carlos Abarca, 26, a student analyst at USF and a Registered Behavioral Technician, said that he has to take every precaution possible to protect his clients. Abarca said he follows strict procedures in order to ensure the safety of not only his clients, but their families and elders that may live with them. 

“I work with kids that are vulnerable,” Abarca said. “Sometimes, they have other vulnerabilities — those aren’t always explicit, but you have to assume that they’re there.”

Abarca explains that parents of his clients have recounted their child’s struggles in virtual classrooms. “They don’t get the support they need to be able to do [their schoolwork]. . .  and they might not even have the communicative skills for their parents to work with them,” He said. “So it kind of puts them in a really stuck position.”

Kiera Martin, 24, is a lead teacher at Super School, a nonprofit organization that specializes in assisting students with a wide range of disabilities. 

Martin feels there could have been more preparation on a national level regarding disabled students. She said sending information and training to parents at home perhaps could have been helpful.

“It’s been about six months [since the pandemic began]? That’s enough time to come up with a plan, if not several plans. . . having some kind of idea of how to follow through in a different way with your therapies and practice if all hell broke loose.”

Martin emphasized the importance of having access to therapies for children with disabilities. 

“This is a lifeline . . . this is learning to walk again, learning to swallow again, learning how to swallow for the first time for some kids,” she said. “So many things that we don’t really think about because we are so able-bodied.”


Luisa Peixoto is a junior Digital Media student at Florida International University's School of Communication + Journalism. She was born and raised in São Paulo, Brazil and moved to Miami to start her undergraduate education. She's an avid music lover and spends most of her time keeping up with news on what is happening around the world. Luisa is also passionate about photography, filmmaking, content creation and social media strategy. In the future, she hopes to use her skills and knowledge to write articles and produce digital media content on politics and economics.

Beatriz is a broadcast media major at Florida International University and is the managing editor for Caplin News. She aspires to become a documentarian.