The scale of how the pandemic has upended the lives of students is manifold, but some are hurting more than others. Students with disabilities have faced unique challenges in their academic journeys throughout the pandemic, facing multi-level structural barriers exacerbated by a global public health crisis.
While many students have lamented the failures of distance learning, students with disabilities are finding accommodations they never had access to before. “It helped me realize, like, ‘Wait, why can’t I get these accommodations all the time?'” Arizona State University student Daniel Goldberg reportedly told The New York Times. For many Western universities, the decision to launch the spring term remotely has reignited the debate between the merits of virtual and on-campus learning.
Yet the voices of university students, staff and faculty members who are disabled are notably excluded from campus policy-making and the COVID-19 response, despite being among the most vulnerable groups. vulnerable who are at risk of contracting severe symptoms of COVID-19. This brings a crucial question of accessibility and learning to the fore: what does inclusive education look like as we navigate its future in the post-pandemic world?
We must do everything to ensure that people with disabilities are politicians, decision makers, teachers, health professionals – so that our rights and our access to education, employment and health care are protected. #MyDisabledLifeIsWorthy @DisabledStem @DisabledDoctor @DisabledAcadem https://t.co/AAE9oVlFBs
—Vivian G. Cheung, MD (@Vivian_Cheung2) January 11, 2022
Are “reasonable accommodations” for students with disabilities honored in higher education?
Online learning is not a panacea for the systemic barriers that students with disabilities have faced for years, but the ability to participate in discussions without a physical presence can be helpful for those who find commuting to class a pain.
“Some students with disabilities find the off-campus online setup to be better for them because they can better focus on their academic work and reduce the travel and preparation time needed to get to and from campus,” Marcia Lyner -Cleophas, head of the Disability Unit at the Center for Student Counseling and Development at the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa, is quoted as saying.
People with disabilities are more likely to have health comorbidities, which puts them in the high-risk category that should deserve more care and consideration under campus health and disability services. The reality, however, is often the opposite.
“During my graduate studies in the Engineering for Professionals (EP) program, I had nine Hopkins professors. Only two provided the disability accommodations promised by the university,” writes Laurel Maury, a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University. Recently, the university came under fire on Twitter after four students with disabilities were expelled from the graduate program, despite having sufficient grounds for accommodation.
Read the stories of 4 students with disabilities expelled from a Hopkins graduate program, all within 7 months of each other. We now know of a 5th student expelled during the same period. This must stop!#WeAreHopkinsToo#DisabilityTwitter #Capacity @WeWantJustus https://t.co/xZTHsf3qvE
— Katie Anderson (@KAsNotebook) January 12, 2022
More often than not, “reasonable accommodations” are arbitrary in nature and may not necessarily meet the needs of a student with a disability. The emergence of mass online learning out of necessity at the start of the pandemic is a stark reminder of how we failed those who needed flexibility the most.
“At some point non-disabled people decided that such things were unimaginable,” said Aimi Hamraie, a disabled scholar at Vanderbilt University. “And then overnight, they became imaginable out of necessity.”
I want universities to remember that students, faculty and staff with disabilities are part of their communities.
— Dr. Jessie Male (@ProfJMale) January 13, 2022
Of course, virtual learning also has disadvantages for students with disabilities. Issues such as poor connectivity, lack of captioning and transcription, poor assistive technologies, as well as attention and memory issues exacerbate the daily difficulties they face in a context of risk for public health.
A study by the Disabled Students’ Commission (DSC) in the UK concluded that a majority of students support the move to blended learning and are in favor of pre-recorded lessons as long as they are in an accessible format. “Over time, the higher education sector will need to consider what exactly it means when it talks about being ‘fully accessible’ or ‘inclusive’ for students with disabilities,” writes Stephen Campbell, Dyslexia and disability at Leeds Trinity University. “He will also have to take into account his own assumptions about the relationship between teaching strategies, learning activities, independent student learning and assessment.”
For starters, higher education can begin by truly listening to its disabled community. If a university is serious about promoting equity on campus, it must also consider the experiences of those who cannot be physically present on its grounds.