An Accessible Academy in COVID-19

This post appears in the SHA Grad Council's new series about research, teaching, and living under the shadow of the pandemic.

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To be sure the COVID-19 pandemic has launched us into a time of uncertainty and insecurity. It’s highlighted the fragility of our medical and welfare systems. Discriminatory processes are at an all-time high, and stratification is determining who will survive this outbreak. Racism, ableism, sexism – issues of privilege or lack thereof are coming into sharp realization.

As a disabled person with multiple chronic illnesses, this is a terrifying time. I have read hospital ethics codes which claim that my life is worth less than that of an able-bodied person by utilitarian standards. I have struggled to get medications because they’re been trialed as COVID cures, and people are hoarding over the counter drugs to an unprecedented degree. My community of activists have been shaken and some have passed away. Despite the fact that we are amongst the most vulnerable, in many ways my community has been forgotten in welfare policies and is largely unable to secure medical access. Many have put off surgeries that could greatly improve their quality of life. And far more are being forced to forego treatments.

In terms of my daily quality of life things are not great. However, conditions have significantly improved in terms of building an accessible work environment. Stay-at-home orders and the switch to online learning has meant drastic changes in my academic community. Disabled academics and our allies (especially adjunct faculty and others who have ALWAYS taught online courses, largely without the same privileges as faculty at R-1 and liberal arts schools) have stepped up to remind faculty that accessibility was supposed to be written into our courses from the outset. Although the changes have been abrupt and demanding, faculty are being forced to rethink the academy at large. For me that rethinking sparks excitement.

In my own research I study moments of potentiality. I think, by large, the same is true of all historians. While COVID is undoubtedly a tragedy, it’s also a moment of potentiality. A moment where academics are being forced to consider what really matters, what aspects of education are the most important, and what aspects of our own research can help make sense of this time. It’s hopefully a time of new beginnings.

The disabled community has been a major beacon for me in this time of unease. As a member of the community it’s a time of great hope while also a time of mourning. There are so many accommodations being put into place now that were refused to us for so long. It’s upsetting, to know that our needs are only taken seriously when they match the needs of able-bodied individuals. Yet it’s also a reminder that allyship matters, that accommodations benefit everyone when they’re implemented, and that we can create a more accessible and thereby a more equitable future. Here are some things that I’m excited about:

1. Work-from-home is finally viable. I have been very lucky to secure fellowships for my dissertation research. These fellowships have connected me to a slew of incredibly knowledgeable archivists, librarians, museum coordinators, preservationists, editors, and historians at large. They’ve been pivotal resources, but it feels like there is an expectation gap. As a fellowship holder you can’t be in the archive every single day – reading, scanning, and taking notes are not daily activities. If we’re in the archive every single day looking at content, it means we’re not getting any real writing done. For every day in the archive, there’s probably a week of transcribing, connecting, reading secondary sources, and writing that have to happen to produce new content.

As a disabled person, I would readily rather do all of that piecing together at home. At home I can accommodate myself (especially with these tools) in so many more ways than I can at the archive. I can take breaks to eat and drink whenever I need. I can go for a walk around my block. I can use a computer with larger screens and text, I can use an ereader without headphones, and I can regulate my office space to be both productive and comfortable. I’ve heard the same from many other disabled colleagues.

There is a pressure – whether on fellowship or on campus teaching – to “show up” as often as possible. To work from an archival chair even when you’re not using materials. To work in the shared graduate student office even when it is a distraction. When you don’t show up there are questions about your productivity. Questions about whether you deserve support, whether you’re making the most of it, whether you’re doing everything expected. Yet those expectations are rooted in ableism. We often value the performance of productivity over productivity itself.

2. Digital Formats. Finally, conferences are streaming panels! I have been anti-conference since I started my PhD. They’re often miserable and incredibly inaccessible and asking for accommodations is tough. Conferences mean increased travel which is largely bad for the environment, as well as jam-packed days of panels. Disabled people have proposed a slew of accommodations: quiet rooms, adequate seating, labelled food items, individual accommodations for dietary restrictions, physical layouts safe for those using adaptive devices, transcriptions of presentations, accessible A/V formats with captions and descriptions, ASL interpreters, microphones in each room. I’ve attended upwards of ten conferences, and the only one that was accessible was a day-long conference on Disability Studies. We need to make valid spaces for disabled individuals to present their work without having to travel to do so. Conferences in their present form are miserable, and incredibly physically (and mentally) taxing. We can do better.

3. Accessible course design. Switching to online learning can help professors and TAs use digital based accessibility tools that they might not think of incorporating into the standard in-class lecture. Many design courses without image descriptions, alt-text, captions, and OCR screen reader access. Now that courses are being revamped and redesigned, it’s time to incorporate accessible practices into the very course design.


4. Evolving classroom structure. Professors are learning that students cannot watch an hour-long lecture and remain focused. Which, if you think about it, means that they similarly can’t listen to an hour-long lecture in class and remain focused. Likewise, classroom discussions by zoom are impossible for large class sizes. Student responses through alternative formats help those most uncomfortable with public speaking voice their opinions. Similarly, these varied formats allow for a diverse engagement from students in multiple formats, not just general class discussion. Innovative class assignments help to show that students embody a range of skills, experiences, and modes of expression.

5. Telehealth mental health/therapy appointments. University mental health staff are generally overburdened and unable to meet the caseload of a campus. Yet we know that graduate students experience high rates of depression and suicide. In a study last November, a third of graduate student respondents claimed that they sought mental health services.” Out of these, 18% of those who sought help at their home institution didn’t feel supported. Telehealth appointments covered by student insurance allow students to find therapists that fit their needs, outside of their overburdened community where they can rarely secure appointments. If we are going to address the climbing suicide rates of graduate students, these accommodations must continue.

For me in particular, these changes are warmly welcomed. I want to make clear, however, that the measures in place now that I find accommodating do not meet the needs of every student. Moreover, the measures that I outline above take time and commitment to implement. In many spaces accessible instruction has been bypassed. Digital learning is also not the end-all-be-all for accessibility. It can actually make learning less accessible and more invasive. Apart from the broadest access issues (access to computers, stable internet, and a safe environment in which to learn), digital learning can be particularly complicated for disabled students. Too much time spent reading on screens can be absolutely detrimental to students with processing disorders or neurological disorders. Accessing accommodations, like electronic readers, without physically being on campus right now, is also incredibly complicated. [If you’re a student in need of resources check out this link]

More than anything I hope that the unique challenges of switching to remote learning and the other constraints of the pandemic highlight disabled voices. We have solutions that you now need to care about, because they benefit you too. The only way in which we’ll design an equitable system, that balances the needs of the disabled community, is to have our voices present when you create policies about our inclusion and wellbeing. Our needs cannot be forgotten in discussion about returning to campus. A physical return to campus is largely impossible for immunocompromised peoples right now. If you commit to our total exclusion, you will be perpetuating academic ableism and ensuring that higher ed becomes even less diverse. We all have a role to play in promoting equitable higher education despite all of the present setbacks, and we should plan to do it together. The future is accessible. 

[Nicole Schroeder is Dissertation Fellow at the Library Company of Philadelphia and a Ph.D. Candidate in Early American History at the Corcoran Department of History at the University of Virginia.]

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