As we enter our third week of courses conducted entirely online and adjust to this new reality, we need to ask ourselves: Why weren’t these services readily available before the COVID-19 pandemic?
These services include: every course material (including textbooks) available online, Zoom lectures recorded for future reply and review and more lenient attendance policies as students attempt to connect from different corners of the world with varying degrees of reliable internet access. Just a couple of months ago, many of us were told the same accommodations were not possible, or our professors were simply not willing to make these options available to us.
These are the accommodations differently abled students need every single day. Whether it be a physical or mental disability, the traditional in-person lecture format can be a massive barrier to a student’s success in any course.
Take me, for example. I have Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and arthritis in my spine. Some days, my GAD makes it impossible to focus on the lecture, and my presence in class is useless. My time would’ve been better spent working through my anxiety, but instead it gets amplified when I contemplate missing a class that has mandatory attendance or isn’t recorded. Some days, my arthritis flares up, and I literally cannot leave my bed because I can’t use my legs.
Will I lose participation points? What if something crucial was discussed that isn’t on the posted slides? How do I actually make up for the knowledge I miss during lecture if the professor elects to not record it?
A new disability can come up during a semester. Let’s say a student develops depression and is having immense difficulty leaving their living space. Even if that student schedules an appointment with Yale Mental Health & Counseling on the first day they noticed their depressive symptoms, those appointments are set for weeks, sometimes months in the future. How is this student supposed to provide documentation to Student Accessibility Services and receive accommodations when they haven’t seen a professional? How can their absences and missed participation points be excused without so-called “proof of illness?” How will they make up the missed knowledge in lecture if it isn’t recorded?
One absence here or there isn’t the end of the word. But when one has a chronic disability, it isn’t always just a couple absences. They can pile up quickly with any sort of relapse in one’s health. About one in five college students have a physical disability and one in three experience mental illness sometime in their college career, with the latter statistic increasing annually. Differently abled students are not rare. We are here, in every class, at every school, throughout every term.
Upon speaking to faculty at different schools about the concept of recording their lectures, many express concerns about drastic drops in attendance. This is a very reasonable concern. Weeks and months of work go into planning and creating a course. Instructors want their efforts to be respected and appreciated by the students they teach. However, we must step back and ask ourselves, “Are the desires of the instructor more valuable than differently abled students’ needs?”
Able-bodied and able-minded students will take advantage of these accommodations. There is no getting around that. Some will need the time to go to work or complete an assignment for a different class. Others will just want to “attend” lecture at a different time because they’ll learn better. Others still will just not want to come to class. This needs to be accepted for the sake of bettering the experience of differently abled students. Instead of denying these facts, instructors should create a lecture environment that is engaging enough to encourage students to attend in person as often as they can.
Yale clearly has all of the necessary tools and resources to provide an online education when an in-person class is not possible. The University has a responsibility to their students across the ability spectrum to make the entirety of their education accessible to them. Instead of adjusting every time a student produces the Accessibility Services documents, make these accessibility changes universal across departments and schools throughout the University at the undergraduate, graduate and professional school levels.
Banning mandatory attendance policies and mandating all instructors record their lectures will not solve every accessibility-based issue students face. However, it will eliminate a barrier many of us will encounter at some point in our education. Continuing to deny these policy changes tells differently abled students what we’ve already known others think: Our needs are not considered urgent or necessary.
Yale prides itself on being a leader in all fields. Here is yet another opportunity for us to set an example for the world on improving students’ higher education experience.
ADAM MOORE is a Master of Public Health candidate at the Yale School of Public Health. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .