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COVID-19 and Remote Work: Access for Whom?

Updated: Jun 8, 2022

By Cait S. Kirby, Vanderbilt University and Ada 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 disabled—have 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 accommodations—telecommuting, access to computers, and relaxed attendance policies—are 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 them—and in doing so, all of us—at 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.

Ada Hubrig (@AdamHubrig) is a multiply disabled caretaker of cats. Their 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. They currently reside in Huntsville, Texas, where they are 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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