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Thanks to the pandemic, the needs of people with disabilities are finally being met, but will it last? | COMMENTARY

The pandemic has prompted colleges to adapt new ways of education, such as distance learning, that people with disabilities have requested for years.
The pandemic has prompted colleges to adapt new ways of education, such as distance learning, that people with disabilities have requested for years. (Canva)

I spent my college career advocating for the rights of disabled students like myself. Progress was made, but institutional change in higher education comes at a glacial pace. I never expected that a yearslong struggle for accommodation would be realized overnight as a byproduct of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Students with disabilities have repeatedly requested and been denied the ability to view lectures and participate in class without physically being in the classroom. Within the span of days, universities that routinely denied accommodation requests for sporadic remote classroom access, citing them as infeasible, migrated their entire curriculum and operations to an online format.

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However, when online schooling is no longer convenient for the majority, I fear that it will disappear for the minority.

As a disabled college student, I’d usually allot myself double the amount of time needed to walk to class. Now, I can wake up and walk a few feet to my desk to begin my day. I can even work from my bed.

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Once lengthy lectures, bookended with tiring walks, are now asynchronous recorded videos that I can access at any time — an accommodation that I and many disabled students were told was impossible due to technological constraints and privacy and copyright concerns. When I couldn’t attend class, ableist mandatory attendance policies would threaten my academic success. Now, I just have an additional recorded lecture to watch when it fits in my schedule.

While some of the physical accessibility challenges I faced on a college campus have been mitigated in this new remote format, this silver lining of the pandemic should not be considered a silver bullet for access.

The transition to online learning has exacerbated other accessibility challenges. The increased hours spent staring at a screen have triggered frequent migraines, impeding my productivity to a significant degree in an academic environment where success depends on screen time. For those with limited access to high-speed internet or personal computers, a fully online education is yet another blockade to equity.

Higher education has long struggled with necessary accessibility efforts in online materials, like captioning or offering audio description for videos. Hastily made video-based lectures are even less likely to be accessible as faculty quickly transition their courses. In many cases in the online environment, accessibility has become even more of an afterthought. While many faculty are trying, it should be acknowledged that we cannot rely on them to create equitable digital spaces when they have barely been trained to teach in physical ones.

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As a disability advocate, I’m excited at the potential for increased awareness of accessibility needs, but I can’t help but feel bitter as I take in the ugly truth. Universities want praise for switching so quickly and efficiently to online schooling. It’s too little, too late. We can all see now that the long history of dismissing remote learning was not a result of technological or organizational pitfalls, but rather a lack of prioritizing or valuing the experiences of students with disabilities beyond what is legally required — and sometimes not even that.

Accommodations that many of us have spent years fighting for our right to have are now built into the structure of my remote classrooms. The pandemic has shown just how quickly schools can innovate when it becomes convenient for them to do so or necessary for more than the 19% of their student population with disabilities.

It brings me great joy that those students without disabilities and educators are finding the benefits of remote learning — like the flexibility and malleable playback it allows — but I worry about what will happen when in-person learning is permitted again. Will online learning as a mainstream option be whisked away as quickly as it was thrust into existence? When providing virtual learning environments is no longer convenient for universities, will students who request remote learning accommodations be once again told that their asks are “unreasonable” or “not feasible” by staff?

Take this time as a proof of concept. Universities have demonstrated that they consider online learning feasible, legitimate, and on-par with in-person courses — they’re even charging the same tuition. Make no mistake: This is not a win for accessibility activism. It is an acknowledgment that when our needs become the convenience of the majority, they are quickly accomplished. Real progress means meeting our needs fully because we are valued as learners, not merely by coincidence or legal requirement.

Jessica Campanile (jcampan6@jh.edu) is a recent graduate of Dartmouth College and current student at Johns Hopkins University.

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