Disability and student wellness have become more of a focus at Westminster College over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Christie Fox, the director of student success and retention.
Long COVID can be considered a disability because of the long lasting COVID-19 symptoms including, but not limited to, fatigue, shortness of breath, difficulty thinking and concentrating, and chronic pain, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.
“Every day we work on [increasing accessibility],” said Fox. “It is part of our diversity statement. Every day we work on it, it should be something that [we’re] constantly learning and constantly getting better.”
Disability has been a part of Westminster’s diversity statement since it was written in 2017, but COVID-19 has shifted the school’s view on disability from being mostly about legal compliance to Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to more a part of social justice and human rights, according to Fox
“We’ve leaned into this idea of disability as a diversity issue relatively recently,” said Fox. “This is new and when we frame it that way, I think it lands for folks in ways that it didn’t before. This is about justice. This is about diversity. This is about equity.”
Jody Katz, director of disability services and testing center, said COVID-19 has provided an example for everyone to see systemic ableism, which is discrimination against people with disabilities.
“[COVID-19] has demonstrated the disparities especially when people with disabilities are presented as expendable by society at large,” Katz said in an email interview. “Westminster College has been very proactive in providing the first mandatory vaccine campus in Utah — I found this very reassuring as an employee and for the students that serve.
Awareness of inaccessibility and disability have increased over the past two years, according to Han Kim, a public health professor.
“If you have a disability, if you’re part of that community, you’re still kind of doing the same things that we’ve done in the world the last two years,” Kim said. “I hope that it gives some [abled] folks empathy to realize, ‘Oh, wow. For us, it was just a two year reprieve. For others this continues.’”
The mortality rate of immunocompromised people, who have been hospitalized due to COVID-19, is 9.6% opposed to 2.3% for non-immunocompromised people, according to the Public Library of Science.
Disabled and immunocompromised people are continuing to social distance, wear masks, and are cautious of COVID-19 because they have to be, according to Kim.
COVID-19 Impacts on Accessibility
COVID-19 has had a significant impact on accessibility, according to Jody Katz, the director of disability services.
“I think COVID-19 in general has created increased awareness of the notion of flexibility for all,” Katz said. “Whether that means remote work or the ability for people to attend and participate in coursework remotely. In the past there was an assumption that remote work was inferior in all realms. COVID has highlighted the universal aspect of flexibility for all.”
The shift from in person to virtual learning made classes more accessible for some disabled students, while hurting other students’ ability to access the course material, according to Christie Fox, director of student success and retention.
“What was really surprising was that for some students, school became so much more accessible, which I was not anticipating,” Fox said. “If you have an attendance-related accommodation, then suddenly it was much easier to attend class.”
Both Fox and Katz said virtual classes made learning less accessible for some students.
Han Kim, a public health professor, said he has kept virtual attendance as an option for his classes because it allows students more ways to learn and access the course material.
“I think one of the things that for me personally, I need to recognize, and I’m hoping, and I’m continuously learning is that [disbled students] aren’t the exceptions,” Kim said. “That’s another form of othering.”
Binnie Green Morris, a junior justice studies major, ASW speaker of senate, ASW president elect and a physically disabled and neurodivergent student, said they hope virtual learning would continue to be an option.
“I hoped that the sympathy for a flexible learning style — having the option to participate remotely when necessary — would remain in classrooms, but unfortunately, this isn’t so,” Green said in an email interview. “The rush to want pre-covid life back is understandable, but it comes at the very real cost of disabled students’ lives.”
While most classes have switched back to in person, virtual meetings have stayed even as COVID-19 precautions have lessened, according to Christie Fox.
“One of the things that is sticking is virtual appointments,” Fox said. “Part of that is preference and part of that is accessibility. Advisors, for example, continue to offer virtual appointments. That really changes the time that a student might be able to attend an appointment as well as modality.”
Fox said maintaining virtual appointments increases accessibility for everyone, not just disabled students, an example of the curb cut effect.
The curb cut effect is the idea of increasing access for disabled people increases access for everyone. Curb cuts, the dips in sidewalks at crosswalks, were designed to make cities more accessible to wheelchair users.
After their widespread implementation, many abled people benefited from them; a parent pushing a stroller, a delivery person using a trolley, now had an easier time going about their day.
For virtual appointments, disabled people benefit the most but so does everyone else.
Impact of Inaccessibility
While Westminster is maintaining some of the access improvements learned from COVID-19, disabled students still face barriers, according to Adia Estes, a junior intersectional health and justice custom major and visually impaired student.
“I have been really, really lucky that professors that I’ve worked with have been willing to work with me,” Estes said. “That’s not everybody’s experience.”
Estes said outside the classroom they experience consistent inaccessibility.
“I, for my whole life before now, was the only disabled person in the general spaces of the schools that I went to,” Estes said. “I’ve always [felt like] the only one fighting constantly and explaining myself constantly. It makes you really tense and you feel like you need to fight to exist. All the time. […] Accessibility means not having to fight.”
Feelings of isolation were another aspect of inaccessibility, according to Estes. They said it’s difficult to get to know people and go to campus events.
“If I can’t read a poster, then I don’t go to events because I don’t know about them,” Estes said. “If I do know about it and choose to go to the event, am I going to be able to actually participate?”
Ashlee Szwedko, sophomore neuroscience major, ASW events president and vice president elect, said she’s sad that events on campus aren’t fully accessible.
“I’ve heard people come to me and say that some of our events could be more accessible, I think that I didn’t do that to the fullest extent that I could have this year. […] I want everyone to feel like they do have a place”
Binnie Green Morris, a junior justice studies major, ASW speaker of senate and ASW president elect, said they have experienced inaccessibility on campus and want that to be a focus of ASW in the 2022-23 school year.
“I want to challenge the physical spaces on campus,” Green said in an email interview. “Campus is difficult to physically access from so many perspectives that it needs to be addressed at the highest institutional level for review and complete consideration.”
In addition to ASW’s goals for the next school year, Christie Fox, director of student success and retention, said she hopes accessibility and disability will continue to be a focus within the Westminster community.
“I hope that we don’t get too distracted by the next thing that is hard,” said Fox. “[I hope] that we don’t let access and accessibility move to a back burner. Because I think all of higher education has done that in the past.”
Han Kim, a public health professor, said he hopes people will take COVID-19 as a learning opportunity on accessibility.
“I really am adamant that we take away teaching moments [from COVID-19] because there was so much suffering and pain the last few years,” Kim said. “I think we have a responsibility as a higher education community to go beyond [the legal guidelines for accessibility]. If we’re serious about justice we have to go beyond ‘well we tried.’ That’s not enough.”
Continuing work towards accessibility is a goal Jody Katz, director of disability services and testing center, said she finds rewarding.
“Accessibility is an ever-evolving process,” Katz said. “I find that my work here at Westminster is consistently moving the needle toward a more accessible campus and that is deeply rewarding. If I had one wish it would be to see the development of a disability cultural center on campus.”