• disabledacademicco

By Cait S. Kirby, Vanderbilt University and Adam Hubrig, Sam Houston State University

In the wake of the COVID-19 global pandemic, on March 18th, 2020, the University of Washington announced they would move all teaching online to prevent transmission of the virus. In response to this and a handful of other announcements, disability activist @kateandcrps created the hashtag #AccessibilityForAbleds, and asked, “Why is this so hard [providing accommodations] when disabled people need this to participate in society?” As the number of universities moving to online instruction ballooned, disability activist @Imani_Barbarin started the hashtag #DisabledAndSaltyAF, and explained, “A lot of the things disabled people have long demanded have instantly manifested now that nondisabled people need them too.”

This is not a critique of employing social distancing measures, which immunocompromised disability advocate Zipporah Arielle reminds us are necessary to protect the most vulnerable among us. In fact, we acknowledge and appreciate the extraordinary labor undertaken by our colleagues as they plan for a pandemic and work diligently to curtail the spread of COVID-19. The authors—both graduate students: one chronically ill, the other multiply disabledhave fought for academic accommodations for ourselves and others. We have frequently found strong opposition to and often denial of accommodations such as telecommuting, online instruction, access to computers in class, and other avenues for remote participation. Students with suppressed or otherwise compromised immune systems, chronic pain, mobility impairments, or fatigue often benefit from relaxed attendance policies and the ability to work from home or utilize remote instruction. Individuals with chronic pain, trauma, and anxiety often thrive in environments that they can control, such as their homes. Students with a variety of processing disorders, visual impairments, and physical disabilities benefit from access to a computer for notetaking. These accommodations benefit disabled students and emphasize the health and success of the students, foremost. It is important to remember that students are legally entitled to these accommodations. Without these accommodations, disabled students are not able to participate and receive a subpar education experience as compared to their abled peers. Unfortunately, all too often these accommodations are denied with the excuse that they are “too difficult” or “not reasonable.”

We have found that some faculty distrust disabled students and construct policies around this distrust. The practice of requiring a doctor’s note to excuse an absence suggests that faculty expect that students will fake illnesses to avoid attending class. In fact, just last year a faculty member intimated to one of the authors that he suspected students are cheating on the tests that determine whether they receive extra time on exams. In the classes he taught and continues to teach, he holds power over disabled students who need and deserve accommodations. Additionally, the practices that attempt to weed out so-called “disability fakers” preclude disabled students from receiving accommodations due to financial and accessibility issues.

Importantly, in the wake of COVID-19, these very accommodationstelecommuting, access to computers, and relaxed attendance policiesare now being offered to and required of all undergraduate students and, increasingly, more graduate students, postdocs, staff, and faculty. The accommodations that were once impossible for a single student have suddenly become standard for entire campuses. The costly, time-consuming, and confusing process of acquiring these accommodations has been alleviated and, at the same time, new barriers have been erected. Below is a brief list of said barriers:

Online instruction requires an internet connection and a computer, tablet, or phone, which are not as ubiquitous as they may seem. Poor students without access to the internet will be forced into public spaces, risking their own health.

Some assistive technologies, such as text-readers, are only available to students in computer labs, leaving disabled students without access to necessary learning tools.

Since student participation may not be visible when using ad-hoc online instruction, it can be stressful for d/Deaf and HoH individuals, stutterers, and students with anxiety disorders.

Moving to remote instruction while displacing students results in confusion, homelessness, and visa problems for international, housing insecure, and poor students. The traumas of being displaced and relocated will likely not be accommodated.

Isolation may exacerbate existing mental health struggles, which will likely not be accommodated, especially if instructors cannot see that the student is struggling. Students who receive mental health services on campus may also lose these supports.

Graduate students have been encouraged or demanded to remain in labs until the moment the universities close their doors. In fact, @ConfusedPhD describes being told by their PI to continue coming to work, even while there was no time-sensitive work to be done in the lab.

Further, graduate students with teaching or teaching assistant responsibilities are required to move their class online and continue scholarly activities. The burden on graduate students to move their courses online while continuing to pursue research is enormous and will likely cause some students to fall behind their peers and/or overwork themselves.

Contingent faculty members who are often already unfairly compensated for their labor are asked to take on extra work in the shift to online instruction.

Early-career scholars who will soon begin tenure review and postdoctoral scholars with a short time to demonstrate productivity are expected to continue doing research.

Finally, hourly staff, such as housekeepers, dining, and custodial staff, may be facing lay-offs or reduced hours. On the other hand, in some cases these workers are being overworked, such as when students are ushered off campus, and are given no protective gear or training.

We know universities are being forced to act quickly, but not considering these vulnerable populations puts themand in doing so, all of usat greater risk.

It is not lost on us that accommodations became widespread only once they were required by non-disabled people to protect their own health. We accept the precedent that the current unfortunate crisis provides and have documented the accommodations from across the United States in a digital paper trail archiving these announcements. It is our hope that institutions of higher education learn a great deal about the benefits and limitations of accommodations from this scenario. We further implore that they adopt procedures to mitigate the challenges that an unplanned move to remote learning is currently creating for specific populations and also adopt procedures in the future to provide accommodations more readily.

As disability advocates point out, accommodations are frequently denied disabled students, staff, and faculty when they request them. As both Washington University’s and Stanford University’s announcement proclaimed: “Departments and faculty are asked to put student health and success first in all decision making.” We applaud these efforts and absolutely agree student health (and relatedly success) should be prioritized. But like other advocates for disabled students, we insist that these accommodation measures for students to promote their health and success be better distributed to disabled students, staff, and faculty even when there is not a global pandemic. As we plan for social distancing, we must consider how to support those who are at greater risk with fewer resources.

Adam Hubrig (@AdamHubrig) is a multiply disabled caretaker of cats. His research on community literacy and disability has appeared in College Composition and Communication, Reflections, Community Literacy Journal, The Journal of Multimodal Rhetoric, and his words have also found homes in Brevity, Typehouse Magazine, and The Lincoln Underground. He currently resides in Huntsville, Texas, where he is an Assistant Professor of English at Sam Houston State University.

Cait S. Kirby (@caitskirby) is a chronically ill scientist, teacher, learner, and PhD Candidate at Vanderbilt University. In lab, she studies how mitochondrial DNA copy number is regulated in the model system C. elegans. In her spare time, she explores disabled graduate student experiences, particularly around belonging and mentorship. She makes resources for teachers and students, which are available on her website.

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By Mark Bookman

As a wheelchair user, I always try to anticipate barriers to accessibility before traveling abroad. In practical terms, this means researching my destination ahead of time to discern if there are any stairs, closed-off spaces, or potential pitfalls (either literal or metaphorical). However, despite my best efforts, there are ultimately some barriers that I cannot predict. Perhaps the taxi from the airport is unable to accommodate my particular brand of wheelchair. Or maybe my hotel room is a bit farther than I would like from the nearest convenience store. Such barriers are normally inconvenient, but not insurmountable. I’ll find another way from the airport to my destination or make do without a convenience store for a couple of days. But I can only think of so many temporary fixes, and at the end of the day they are temporary. What if I’m in the situation where my stay is longer than a few days? What if I find myself visiting more places, doing more things, and having to anticipate more barriers than I would otherwise? This is one of the issues that sets apart studying abroad from other kinds of travel.

In this blog post, I draw on my personal and professional experiences working as a visiting researcher at four Japanese universities over the last ten years to call attention to some of the barriers that people with disabilities face when studying abroad. I’ll also explain how I overcame those barriers and offer a model for (self)advocacy and problem solving that may help other students in the future. My intention is to invite conversation about different kinds of strategies for navigating barriers to accessibility not only in the Japanese academy but in institutions of higher education across the world.

Now, without further ado, let me begin by describing my experience at Waseda University back in 2008. When I studied at Waseda, I was still able to walk, albeit with a limp. I stayed with a host family, and while I didn’t have much difficulty navigating their home, moving around outside was a different story. I spoke next to no Japanese and had a hard time making friends. Indeed, I definitely could not explain the nature of my disability to those who asked, and I became increasingly frustrated due to the language barrier. How I yearned to tell my peers why I couldn’t stay out in the heat for too long or how their offers to carry me upstairs made me feel uncomfortable. Instead, I simply succumbed to the pressure of the situation and let everyone around me do as they liked. It was an incredibly unhealthy lifestyle, and one that I now know to avoid. But how did I survive at that time? Certainly, I did my best to study Japanese. But learning a foreign language was a time-consuming process that I couldn’t rely upon for quick and easy answers. Eventually, I found another solution in prerecorded messages. After describing the situation to my English-speaking host-mother, she wrote up a series of flash cards that explained my condition to my peers. Usually, it only took them a minute or two to catch on to what I was saying, at which point they’d let me take the lead and decide where we’d go next. A bit of forethought about translating my disability was enough to enable my social participation.

My situation had changed by my second study abroad experience at Sophia University in 2012; I had started to use an electric wheelchair to get around town. Although I’d had an additional few years of Japanese training, I was still nowhere near the level needed to convey critical information about my disability. I was also in a completely different living situation. I’d moved into an all Japanese dorm with fifty guys who primarily spoke Japanese, and while I received general support from the study abroad office on campus, I didn’t have anyone to prepare flashcards for me on a daily basis or explain my situation to random people I met on the street. So, I had to find another way to advocate for myself. Self-advocacy became particularly important inside of the classroom, when I had to explain to my peers and teachers why I was unable to handwrite kanji and participate in group assignments. My solution here was to come prepared and devote extra time to all academic tasks. By building an extra fifteen minutes into my schedule before and after classes, I made sure that I had time to struggle through conversations about my needs with my instructors. Nothing was guaranteed, but I found that most of my teachers were willing to listen to me if I took the time to explain why they should.

My third study abroad experience at Toyo University in 2014 was remarkable in many respects. For the first time, I was in charge of taking care of all accommodations for myself, including living arrangements and academic affiliation. I learned exactly how difficult it can be to find a permanent address, investigating upwards of 250,000 apartments online (and 40 in person) before finding one that could work – but my problems didn’t end there. While my Japanese was finally good enough to convey information about my disability to those around me, I was still unable to access many of the spaces I needed to go. I was studying Buddhist philosophy, so visiting a number of temples and shrines was a must for completing my fieldwork. Alas, it was all but impossible for me to do so because many religious sites had stairs and other architectural barriers. Rather than abandon my research and resign myself to despair, I decided to embrace each barrier I encountered as a teaching moment. How could I reframe my struggles to help others create an inclusive society? By taking this question to heart, I simultaneously empowered myself and found a new way forward.

I am currently in the middle of my fourth study abroad trip to Japan at the University of Tokyo. My physical needs are quite different this time around then they were over the last few excursions: I rely on attendants for assistance, and spaces that used to be accessible for me are no longer usable. But I have learned several new survival strategies over the last few years that make my life easier. For one thing, I communicate frequently with my professors and peers at school. Constant contact allows me to share my frustrations with my friends, who help me brainstorm solutions to barriers. Indeed, my friends have become indispensable allies on my quest for creating an accessible world. Another trick that I’ve come to appreciate is relying on regional knowledge networks. My school does not know everything about living and working with a disability in Japan. How could they? Their jurisdiction applies to campus spaces only, which rarely extend beyond classrooms and dorms, let alone trains, shopping malls, restaurants, and other spaces that I visit each day. To find out information about non-academic spaces that still play a role in my academic life, I routinely turn to local organizations like independent living centers and disability advocacy groups for support. Paired with campus resources, the advice of those organizations is enough to sustain my success.

There are many more things I can say about my study abroad experiences in Japan. For now, I’ll condense what I’ve written above into five main takeaways: (1) translate information about your disability ahead of time; (2) devote extra time for identifying/explaining accommodations; (3) think about barriers as learning opportunities rather than roadblocks; (4) maintain constant contact with your peers to brainstorm solutions to challenges; and (5) look to local knowledge networks for answers about aspects of daily life that may not be covered by your university’s resource center.

What have you learned from your study abroad experience? Are there any strategies that you found particularly effective? If so, what are they, and why did they work? Let us know in the comments!

*Note: This post was adapted from a blog entry on (with permission).

Author Bio: Mark Bookman (he/him) is a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Pennsylvania. His research explores the historical contingencies that have allowed some impaired individuals to dictate how members of the public have understood constructions of disability in Japan over the last 150 years. Mark also works as a policy consultant for the Japanese government and United Nations on issues like inclusive education, accessible transit, and disaster response.

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  • disabledacademicco

Updated: May 1, 2021

By Cole Sorensen

Anyone who looks at me can tell that I’m autistic. I pace, rock, jump, hum, flap, and over the last few years, I have lost access to most of my verbal speech. I went through school on the fringes of the special education system; my parents believed that if they didn’t have me identified as autistic, it would stop being a problem, but this didn’t stop my teachers from realizing that I needed extra support, so I spent a fair bit of time working with special ed teachers despite having no IEP (Individual Education Plan).

Until I started college, I had never met an adult who was like me. I had other disabled friends, sure, but with no model of what my life could look like after graduation, I couldn’t imagine much of a future for myself at all. My parents fought to keep me from leaving home and attending university, insisting that I couldn’t handle it, but eventually, I won and enrolled at a university to study special education. I had seen first-hand how special education ignores and fails so many students and I wanted to be the supportive adult that I never had for other disabled kids like me.

At the beginning of the semester, each of my special education courses begins the same way. I arrive early and sit in the front row. My classmates slowly enter in groups of 2 to 5, talking and laughing amongst each other. As the room fills up, I start noticing eyes on me, staring but looking away quickly when I meet their gaze. Sometimes a classmate recognizes me from a previous class, and pulls their desk over to mine. “Hi Cole!” they say, always with an overly-cheerful voice. “How was your summer? Did you do anything fun over your break?”. When I answer, they give a brief, enthusiastic response and on more than one occasion, someone has offered a high-five. Their social obligation done, they pull their desk away and return to laughing with their friends. A few more classmates greet me in a similar manner, and then I’m back to sitting alone at the front of the room once again. I never know whether I prefer the isolation to the patronizing small talk or not, but I doubt that my preference would make a difference either way.

The instructor—always another white woman—walks in and begins the class. She asks us to introduce ourselves and share why we are studying special education. My classmates take their turns, telling stories about how they used to volunteer with the Best Buddies program at their high school, or work at a special needs camp, or maybe they have a little brother who has autism. They share how eye-opening it was to understand the way that people with disabilities see the world. “They’re just like everyone else!” they might proclaim. “It’s just not fair that they don’t get to be included with other kids!” Others talk about how much they love working with kids with special needs, and how it brightens their day when their student with low functioning autism comes up and gives them a hug. Then it’s my turn to speak. I explain my own background, the faults I see in the system, the traumatic impact it has on students. The instructor pauses and tells me, “Wow, that’s so powerful. We’re so glad to have you here, Cole.” A few classmates nod in agreement, and then the conversation moves on.

There’s something uniquely alienating about hearing your experiences discussed amongst people who have never lived it, spoken about in the abstract and leaving you feeling like you’ve walked into a conversation about yourself that you were never supposed to hear. I’ve sat, nearly in tears, listening to lecture after lecture talking about the negative impacts of disability on a student’s family, how the horrible fate of having a disabled child can drive couples to divorce, cause depression in family members, and damage their siblings’ development. I’ve had to watch the same graphic film showing photos from inside institutions, never with any kind of content warning, at least once a year, and listened to my classmates mutter to each other about how tired they are of hearing about this while I am grappling with the fact that, had I been born 50 years earlier, that could very well have been me in those photos. I’ve listened to students like me be described in dehumanizing terms, labeled “low functioning” and “simply not capable”. Autistic behavior, body language, expressions of joy or fear are pathologized and dissected with language like “restricted & repetitive”, “stereotyped”, “deficient”, or “undesired” and I become hyper-aware of the ways my body is moving as I sit there, realizing that my classmates are looking at me as nothing more than an example of that same “undesired” behavior. Traumatic and abusive practices are taught uncritically, and every time I push back on these approaches, I’m told I’m lacking perspective and expecting something unreasonable. Instead I have to sit back and watch dozens of future teachers learn how to traumatize their students in exactly the way my teachers traumatized me.

My presence in the special education program is initially praised by faculty, who publicly declare my voice is important over and over again, up until they realize that my views run counter to everything they have built their careers on. Suddenly my voice is no longer important, but rather, dangerous and dissident. I get shut out of class discussions, my criticisms of the ideas in the lectures only ever addressed in private meetings where classmates cannot hear. I am denied the opportunity to student teach, on the basis that a special education teaching program composed of faculty who research the best ways to provide accommodations to students is apparently completely unprepared to offer pre-service teachers those same accommodations. I am told, again and again, that maybe teaching isn’t the best path for me, that maybe I’m just not cut out for it. I can never understand how someone can profess how important it is that my voice is heard while also doing everything in their power to silence it. I went into special education hoping that I could change the field, but all I’ve realized is that the field is beyond repair.

Bio: Cole Sorensen (he/him) is an autistic and multiply disabled undergraduate student studying Special Education. He is an AAC user who communicates with a device about 90% of the time. For the last three years he has worked as a TA, where he helps teach about autism and disability access at university.

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