I was supposed to start my last year of college this month. Instead, I left university. What lead me to this decision was fighting the administration of my school for more than two years about preserving accommodations set in place during the pandemic for students such as myself who were directly or indirectly impacted by COVID-19 in way that prevented them from returning to traditional college life. I realized in that time that the pandemic gave institutions, including my school, a chance to pretend that they cared about vulnerable members of their community and then quickly forget about them. At the beginning of the pandemic, it seemed that maybe this crisis might change how people viewed Disability and chronic illness and we could come out the other side with more empathy and more accessibility. Instead, it seems that return to normal means return to ableism.
Students of all ages were affected by COVID. For students who already had stressors in their lives such as being at high-risk for severe illness, being a caregiver, losing family members to Covid, or struggling financially the effect was more dramatic. This stress is clear in numbers of students who left college early on in the pandemic. In fall 2019 2.6 million students started college in the US. 26.1% of them did not return in fall 2020.
When my university transitioned to remote learning in 2020, I thought it was going to save me. My mother had been diagnosed with cancer, and I had my own health issues to deal with. With access to distance learning I could deal with all that and get a degree. The school was telling students that it had invested a lot of money in technology for remote learning and to accommodate students’ needs. I believed them, but soon found out that all the promises were short-lived.
After one semester of online learning, the university was ready to go back to “normal.” I learned from speaking with other students with chronic illnesses and other needs that the decision to abandon remote learning so suddenly made them feel forgotten. Even though we had been promised accessible learning through the crisis, the end of the crisis was decided by someone’s opinion; someone who failed to consider the people whose crisis was nowhere near over.
Like many students who were hesitant or physically unable to come back to campus, I felt pressured by the administration. One of the ways they did this was to inform me that I could not receive support from the school remotely. If I needed any kind of support with my studies or otherwise I could only get this when I returned to campus. This was impossible for me at the time- being in another country with a sick parent to care for during a global pandemic. Throughout the last two years in school, I was not included in class discussions, and there was more than one day when I sat at a blank screen when the professor forgot about me or did not bother turning on the computer that day.
My school was aware of my personal circumstances. In response to my many emails over the years I received the same automated email saying I should really “try harder” to get back to in-person learning. With all the tragedy that came with covid, we also had an opportunity to change for the better when it comes to access to school and work. This was also illustrated by the “mass-disabling” event Covid is. It is estimated that Long Covid is keeping up to 4 million Americans out of work.
It is sad that despite all the promises early on in the pandemic, the return to normal somehow justifies the return to ableist attitudes. The idea behind accessibility is that all people can be included. In terms of remote working and learning, those who are not interested in that option are not forced to use it while people who depend on that option can use it with great benefit for everyone involved. Allowing me to continue to use remote learning could have saved my degree, but my university’s response to the “end of the pandemic” took that away. We should have seen that we were doing something good in paying more attention to accessibility and inclusion but instead it seems that the people in charge were never sincere about changing things. They were just happy when they could go back to the way things were without considering those of us who will never be able to do that.