“We have to be very creative”

20 May 2020

Twelve percent of LMU students have to cope with a chronic illness or disability, and they were already confronted with specific challenges before the outbreak of Covid-19. – How are they now faring in the shadow of the coronavirus?

Caroline Schambeck

© Jan Greune / LMU

“At the moment, my student career is at a standstill,” says Caroline Schambeck (29). She has signed up for the Bachelor Program in Orthodox Theology, having already earned a Master’s degree in Geochemistry and Materials Science. Caroline suffers from cystic fibrosis – a congenital metabolic disease that is characterized by overproduction of viscous mucus. While other organs are also affected, the disorder primarily compromises lung function, which results in breathing difficulties. Several months ago, Caroline received a new lung.

“Complications developed after the transplantation procedure itself, which kept me under intensive care in hospital and subsequently in rehabilitation for more than eight months altogether. I am now back at home – having been released in the middle of the coronavirus crisis.” The pandemic has of course banished all possibility of taking up her studies any time soon – the risk of infection with SARS-CoV-2 is much too high. On her return home, she was extremely nervous, she says. “Now I have learned what I need to do and what I must be particularly careful about and, on the whole, I am doing quite well. There are some things I still have to avoid which, under normal circumstances, would no longer be necessary thanks to the new lung. But I’ll just have to put up with that for a while.”

Madeleine Metz, who is doing her Master’s in Education, is also in an especially difficult position at the moment. She is deaf in one ear, and her left ear is seriously impaired. A cochlear implant and a hearing aid help her to cope with this severe burden in her everyday life. Furthermore, she now has a 4-month-old son to look after – and she had planned to temporarily drop out for the current semester. “But since this semester is now taking place online, I decided to not to interrupt my studies because, given the right conditions, I should be able to follow most of the lectures that are on the course.” 6400 LMU students must cope with health impairments

According to the latest social survey conducted by the German Student Services Association, Madeleine and Caroline are among some 6400 students at LMU who have to cope with various forms of health impairment. The University’s Counseling Center for Disabled and Chronically Ill Students is always ready to assist them in mastering the challenges they encounter in everyday life. Since the Covid-19 pandemic began, the Center itself has had to deal with a range of novel issues. “We are now faced with entirely new problems, some of which require a high degree of creativity to solve,” Romy Hoche, who continues to advise her charges over the telephone.

She must now clarify formalities concerning prescribed periods of study and student grants, as well as finding solutions for sundry practical problems. “Many of the inquiries come from students who are particularly at risk at the present time. For example, it will be difficult for them to use the libraries when they eventually re-open and it becomes possible to borrow books from the reference holdings again. They often ask us whether or not scans are available, because most of them don’t want to take the risk of making the trip personally. So she and her colleagues now have to concern themselves with completely unfamiliar issues, such as copyright laws.

Furthermore, many students contact her when they experience difficulties with digital teaching formats. – These problems are particularly acute for students with hearing, visual or speech impairments. Indeed, Madeleine is one of those who have encountered such obstacles. “Sometimes, comments made by participants overlap, which makes them even more difficult to catch,” she says. “And sometimesvoices an unpleasantly tinny quality, which makes it harder to understand what’s being said.” The Counseling Center is now considering whether, and to what extent, it would be possible to tackle this kind of problem with the aid of active subtitling – but such measures must then be paid for somehow. Looking on the positive side

Hoche is doing her best to make those involved in the provision of digital teaching materials aware of the problems that these media can present for students with health impairments. The Center has compiled a guide, based on feedback from students, which contains tips for lecturers and supervisors of seminars on how to make digital learning more accessible for students with disabilities, and a similar guide for these students is designed to help them to make the best use of the formats on offer. – Both booklets can be accessed on the Center’s Website.

On the other hand, according to Hoche, digital instruction is a boon for some of her clients. “Students whose mobility is reduced, or those who are dependent on breathing aids, no longer have to make long trips to attend lectures and seminars, for instance.” Moreover, recorded videos have the advantage that students can decide for themselves when to view them, and they can also be viewed repeatedly if particular passages are difficult to understand.

For Madeleine, as a young mother, not being tied down to a fixed learning schedule is a significant advantage. This allows her to devote herself to her son’s needs whenever he makes them plain. In addition, she has no problem following a lecture on screen while rocking her son to sleep in her arms. And there are other features of digital lectures that she finds helpful. “First of all, the speaker is always shown in full frame on Zoom, which means that lip movements are always visible. Secondly, I can change the volume, either on my headphones or loudspeaker, so that the sound level is optimal for me personally.” Indeed, it is often easier for her to follow what is being said on Zoom than it would be in the lecture hall. Long-term impacts on students with chronic illnesses

Those are some of the reasons why Madeleine would welcome it if lectures in digital formats were to become an established standard in the future. And Caroline too hopes that she will be able to make use of LMU’s digital teaching programs from the coming Winter Semester on. “For someone like me, who belongs to a group for whom Covid-19 represents a grave danger, attending live lectures in person would not be easy. I need to be very careful, and it’s impossible to estimate how long this situation will continue. And when autumn comes around again, I have to take even more care, because that’s when the influenza season begins.”

Romy Hoche and her colleagues are also mulling over the question of how the Covid-19 crisis is likely to affect students with chronic illnesses – and how the Counseling Center can respond to the long-term implications of the pandemic for their clients. “We still have no idea how long this situation will last, nor can we know what our students are likely to face or how they – and we as counselors – can best cope with future changes. It seems very probable that the current situation will persist beyond the end of this present semester. And for high-risk patients especially, the aftermath of the acute phase of the crisis may last for a very long time.” “I do not intend to put my life at risk”

For Caroline, there is no immediate prospect of entertaining close personal contacts with other people – the risk is simply too great. Since she left hospital, she has lived with her parents under conditions of strict isolation. But for her, being at home again after so long represents a very precious kind of freedom. “The protective measures I need to take are simply a matter of habituation. These are things I‘ve become immured to, and I take great care to stick to them, because my life’s at stake – a new life that I’ve been gifted with – and I have no intention of putting it at risk.”

While being grateful for the opportunity to benefit from digital modes of education, both Madeleine and Caroline are looking forward to the day when they can once again attend lectures in person at LMU. What does Caroline think of first when she conjures up that eagerly anticipated day?“Meeting friends in person and not only via video chats, the chance to sit together again at lectures – the feeling of togetherness – that’s what I miss most.”

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