Accessibility Dissonance: The disability community's overlooked fight for remote learning

The disability community expresses their frustrations regarding accommodations amid COVID-19 pandemic

Editor’s note: This article contains offensive language. 

For Sarah Leal, not being able to attend class some days cost her a year of schooling due to an excess of absences.

Leal, a senior studying journalism, is among the 1% of the population living with Von Willebrand disease, a blood disorder that prevents the blood from clotting properly. The disease causes some, like Leal, to cancel a day’s plans to tend to major bleeding at home. 

As universities around the world go online and many workers shift from cubicles to dining tables, some people with disabilities are left wondering if ableism was the only thing standing in their way of previously being granted such accessibility.

ASU is one of the many schools adjusting University practices to combat the spread of COVID-19 by making adjustments that Leal said could have served some members of the disability community all this time. 

“They're using video conferencing to learn now, something that I've been asking for for years so that I could get the same education as my peers,” Leal said. “It really feels like a punch in the face.”

ASU does not have a University-wide attendance policy in place, but several colleges, such as Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College and Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, have their own attendance policies. 

According to Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College attendance policy, three absences in one’s final semester of student teaching can result in an "E" grade in the course, while the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication Academic Integrity Policy allows for two absences for any reason. 

“(It’s) so frustrating that they tell every student, ‘You're not allowed to miss school, and you're not allowed to miss class because journalists don't, because that's not how the real world works,’” Leal said.

Leal said she finds it disheartening that disability students experience feelings of “otherness.” 

“And so now that 'normal' — and I use normal in quotes — now that normal students have the possibility of getting sick, they're like, ‘Oh, well, I guess we can use Zoom,’” she said.

Leal said she reached out to ASU’s Disability Resource Center and was given flexible attendance but was told that a student must be present at the beginning of class and is then able to leave if they must due to a medical emergency. 

“I was told when I got this that Cronkite doesn't like giving students flexible attendance so I'm lucky with what I got,” Leal said. “And it was kind of like one of those moments where it's like, I'm not lucky with what I have. I'm a disabled student, and I deserve the right to have an education.”

While many students and professionals work from home, people with disabilities have taken to Twitter to express their frustrations with the “#DisabledAndSaltyAf.” 

The most popular tweet under the hashtag is a thread by the user @Imani_Barbarin, who later in the thread said, “Every f------ accommodation you have access to, you owe to disabled people. Not just during a pandemic, but everyday. The lives you’re living at the moment, we’ve been living a lifetime.”

Majia Nadesan, a professor at the School of Social and Behavioral Sciences, said all change that aims to create inclusion began with grassroots organizing. Nadesan began teaching disability studies and communication advocacy through the New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences when the program launched in the fall semester of 2019.

Read More: Disabilities studies program coming to ASU in fall 2019

“It is only through voices of the people who experienced the lack of inclusion, or other kinds of exploitation, that change happens,” she said. 

Nadesan said built environments and cultural values reinforce ability over disability, as well as the other kinds of social hierarchies that the public is already familiar with; but said discourse about the disability community has always been more marginalized in comparison to other conversations about gender, nationalism or religion.

“At any time, any one of us could experience some sort of life event that put us in the category of disabilities as defined by expert authorities and by laws. It has a universal application,” Nadesan said. “And yet, when we think about it, we often tend to think of the disability activists as this socially marginal group without recognizing.”

Leal said the disability community values work and education in a different way due to the lack of access to those institutions. 

“I want to go to college, I want to get a job, I want to have a career. And if all it takes is ASU or my company being a tad bit more adaptable and letting me stay at home when I'm having a flare-up, then that's what it takes, and I still am going to be a productive member of society,” she said.

Accommodations for ASU’s disability community will continue to be administered, and the Disability Resource Center will continue operations to assist students' learning remotely.

“In early spring, prior to the transition to online courses, the University launched Ally, a tool in the Canvas platform that scans content to make it available in different forms,” Chad Price, director of ASU’s Disability Resource Center, said in an email. “Additionally, the DRC has (a) faculty and staff resource page to provide the ASU community information on how to best support students with disabilities. The DRC emailed faculty a schedule of training sessions to better prepare for supporting students with disabilities in an online environment.”

He also said the center will contact students who are deaf or hard of hearing to find out if they need communication access including captions, interpreters and real-time translation.

Frustrations with higher education administration extend beyond ASU.

Tyler Buebbeit, a sophomore studying science mathematics at Virginia Western Community College, suffers from a spinal cord injury caused by a motor vehicle accident and uses VWCC’s Office of Disability Services for accommodations but often feels like a passing thought in the school’s infrastructure. 

Buebbeit said the STEM building’s corresponding handicapped parking only has six spots, of which she spends five mornings each week hoping one is open. When the parking structure was undergoing construction and Buebbeit was told to arrange transportation with friends or call campus police, she began to feel like the disability community was not a priority for the school.

“It pretty much constantly feels like they are just trying to pass by the ADA standards and not actually make the college accessible,” Buebbeit said. 

Josh Meyer, director of marketing and strategic communications at VWCC, said there is no flexible attendance policy for disability students but that students can sometimes make arrangements with their faculty that vary by case.

Although reaching out to campus police can be intimidating, Meyer said the school’s campus police manage all parking reservations for guests and that special arrangements can be made for disability students to access parking spots that have been blocked off. 

Nadesan said the ramifications of coronavirus have forced people to prioritize learning how to use applications like Zoom, and the fear of a technological and institutional lag is fading enough to hopefully allow for more accessibility. 

“Everything is kind of changing how we operate,” Meyer said. “And so I think we're learning a lot through this crisis and will probably take some new practices with us into the future.”

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to include more accurate and inclusive language




Reach the reporter at ivcrespo@asu.edu or follow @ziacrespo on Twitter. 

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