Migraine and Social Distance Learning

COVID-19, the global pandemic that has shaken up our world and changed many of our day-to-day lives, has also forced collective communities and institutions to do things a lot differently. With social distancing measures in full swing, learning environments have changed rapidly. I have been thinking a lot about the impact this has on quality of education, equitable access, and especially about the impact this has on students living with chronic health conditions and diseases like migraine.

Migraine triggering learning environments

One of the most difficult aspects of learning for me growing up was the one size fits most approach to the classroom. I remember a distinct difference in the environment from when I was very young, where classrooms had low lamplight and, oftentimes, walls that seemed to be lined with positive messaging like posters about dreaming, to the cold and sterile environments of many college classrooms, where the lights were bright and intense. One constant throughout school was the loud and boisterous pre and post-class chatter.

Going to college

I had intense migraines many days of the week when I was in college, and I felt as though my world was bright and loud all the time, save the reprieve from my dorm room or apartment later on.  Walking on campus to-and-from class included everything, from loudspeakers blasting music from student groups looking to recruit new members to horns and blaring traffic from buses and cars traversing the campus. To be frank, I felt like undergrad was a bit of a circus, built for extroverts. Then again, I attended a huge state school.

Benefits of virtual learning

Now in the time of social distancing, there aren’t quads filled with laughing and cheerful students, the roads are empty, and may classrooms are virtual. Some courses are even built as pre-recorded modules for students to participate on their own time solo. That is kind of a dream in my eyes….I would find myself lying outside of classrooms on the floor (gross I know) to avoid the bright lights and noise while still listening in to lectures from the hall, so being able to take classes from the comfort of home with the lights dim or dare I say it, off, sounds pretty great.

Flexibility and accommodations

There is also the increased flexibility with online learning available to more diverse bodies of students. Having a migraine doesn’t mean missing a lesson, necessarily, as the lesson could be accessible through a recording. These changes in learning make me think that increased accommodation for receiving education could be more widespread and reaching for folks who live with diseases that make it difficult to show up and be present in a classroom. On the other hand, distance learning does seem to also create additional barriers and hardship, particularly for students living with migraine.

Drawbacks of virtual learning

Without fail, staring at a screen too long for me is a sure-fire way to induce a migraine. Whether it’s too much television, too much phone, or too much computer, after a while I can feel myself getting nauseous and my head begins to throb. Writing these kinds of articles takes me a while to complete because I often take breaks to rest my eyes, and I remember writing papers in notebooks before typing them out in college so I wouldn’t have to stare at a screen for too long. Learning completely online can present a challenge for folks who also deal with this when engaging with screens, especially if the course is ‘live’ and requires students to be in the virtual classroom for a few hours at a time. Reading long assignments online, in particular, seems arduous and potentially difficult for students living with migraine.

Communicating needs virtually

Another downside is definitely the distance from instructors. Being in communication with my professors was so crucial in my own success or not in college, because I needed accommodation. Everything from extensions on tests because I was too sick to report to class to being able to wear sunglasses in the classroom, having office hours to be able to advocate for myself was essential.

Accommodations for virtual learning with migraine

There are some great tools out there for helping folks living with migraine cope with triggers like light sensitivity that might make online learning and looking at screens difficult. Migraine glasses for instance like TheraSpecs can filter out light that can aggravate a migraine. Using a text-to-voice translator can also help to ease some of the strain from reading by turning text and readings into, essentially, audiobooks. These tools can help to make this transition more accessible and manageable for students who might struggle with new expectations around learning.

Virtual self-advocacy

Self-advocacy can also be more easily expressed online for some. I know I personally feel more articulate and ‘together' when I am able to write or type out my needs and thoughts, and so utilizing online tools like email to get in touch with professors can be a good way to advocate without having to worry about aphasia. It also provides the opportunity to quickly link articles and information about migraine to instructors to help them understand why this new learning environment might provide barriers to learning.

Prioritizing self-care

Overall, now is a good time to prioritize taking care of our collective mental and physical health, and a part of that can simply be listing out what is difficult about this time and brainstorming ways we can work with those tasked with educating us to address those difficulties, whether that be the ability to wear your migraine glasses during the virtual class, or asking for lessons to be available both through auditory and visual means.

Have you noticed changes to your migraine needs for accommodation and management while learning with social distancing? Do you prefer in-person or online learning? Do you have tips and suggestions for others in the community for being successful in learning online? Let’s discuss in the comments!

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