Nate Tilton often found campus spaces difficult to navigate. A master's student in medical anthropology at University of California, Berkeley, Tilton is a power-chair user and disabled veteran. Once, when the layout of an amphitheater didn’t allow his chair the space to turn around, he sat through an entire class facing a wall.
Tilton would sometimes ask professors if he could stream lectures instead of attending in person. But when professors did allow it, he said, they often put the burden of accommodations on him, asking him to find a friend in class who could stream the lecture.
“I have to be dependent on somebody else to Zoom me in, instead of depending on the institution,” said Tilton, who registered with his campus disability office. “If I don’t have a friend in that class, as you can imagine, that would be difficult.”
But now that courses are over Zoom, things are better. Finding note takers has been more difficult, Tilton said, but everything is automatically online. He can lie down on the floor with his camera off and do grounding exercises to soothe anxiety attacks during class.
“Now that we’re in this entire Zoom-topia I haven’t been asked to have a buddy Zoom me in at all," he said. “When we go back to school am I going to be asked to go back to that?”
Another disabled student at Berkeley, who wished to remain anonymous, had similar experiences. When her medical condition flares up, it's hard to attend class. She asked her professors for a flexible attendance policy or lecture recordings, but even though she is registered with her disability office, some denied her requests.
“Professors in general don’t often provide an asynchronous option or a view-from-home option, which often results in me quite frankly just missing out on material,” the student said. “I can’t demonstrate a mastery of material that I was never allowed to learn.”
But now that Berkeley is holding classes online, she says she’s thriving. When she’s in too much pain to move, she can watch lectures from her bed.
“I have actually never done so well in my classes before,” she said. “It has basically transformed my academic experience.”
Many students have found online learning to be burdensome and isolating. But for some disabled students, it’s a reprieve. Several students attending University of California campuses said that many of the accommodations they were asking for pre-pandemic have become universal now for all students, especially those related to flexible attendance and lecture recording.
Some expressed frustration with what’s happened, explaining that when disabled students needed flexibility, they were told it couldn’t be done. But when COVID-19 became an emergency for everyone else, campuses figured out simulcasting and video recording in a matter of weeks.
But mostly, these students are thinking about the future. Now that COVID-19 has proved the viability of hybrid and flexible classes, will institutions make disabled students go back to the way things were?
“We’ve shown through this that we can accommodate people who can’t physically attend lectures,” said the anonymous Berkeley student. “We have a proof of concept.”
‘A Work in Progress’
Students with disabilities are not a monolith, and each individual has a different experience. Lauren Anding, a student at UC Riverside who examines accommodations for the UC System Disability Ad-Hoc Committee, said that some students have had more trouble during the pandemic, especially those who need extra time on tests and assignments. Professors are more concerned with cheating in the online environment, she said, and some of them just don’t know how to operate the technology to give an individual student extra time.
But many autistic students she’s heard from, as well as students with chronic illnesses or mobility impairments, have found things easier. Students who need extra time moving from class to class no longer have to worry about the exhaustion that might bring and don’t have to wait on campus in between lectures. Students having illness flare-ups can watch recordings when they’re ready.
Some disabled students have sensitivities to fragrances or chemicals. For those in science courses, being able to perform labs online has been a blessing as well, Anding said.
“The transition to going from online to back to on campus needs to be a long transition period so that students can get acclimated,” she said. “There should be on-campus classes and online classes.”
For some autistic students, taking courses online lets them better control their own environment.
Erica Mineo, an autistic student at UC Davis, said that before the pandemic, she had to pace herself through all the sensory stimuli of her day. She wore earplugs to tune out buzzing lights, air conditioner fans and construction noises. She found the quietest ways across campus and walked them before the semester began.
Mineo was granted audio recordings of lectures and distraction-free exam rooms before the pandemic, but she said that taking courses at home has still significantly lowered her overall stress.
“I don’t need to contend with large crowds, loud construction, sensory-unfriendly classrooms, and constantly masking my autistic traits for a significant part of the day,” she said via email. “I also have easier access to many more strategies and tools to self-regulate when things do get overwhelming, such as my weighted blanket, stuffed animals, and taking care of my cat, Callie. I also feel much more freedom to engage in stimming, or repetitive self-soothing, during lectures and classes.”
That’s not to say everything is perfect. Students still say there are a few things they miss about classroom learning. Some students, such as those who have low vision or are hard of hearing, have faced more barriers in the online environment. And how one experiences online learning can be mediated through economic class, family status and geography. If you don’t have high-speed internet, for example, online learning will always be challenging.
Karen Nielson, director of the Disability Student Program at Berkeley (the office that handles student accommodations), said the frustrations some students have -- over professors placing the burdens of accommodations on them, for example -- are unfortunately not unique to the University of California or to Berkeley. The situation is much more systemic.
“The frustration that the students express is fully merited,” she said. “In every large university setting, there tends to be a work in progress regarding faculty and accommodations. And it isn’t entirely on the faculty. They’re asked to do this and don’t receive any formal training on how to accommodate students with disabilities.”
One student at a California university said that in their experience, some professors require a doctor’s note for every excused absence, even if the student has an accommodation letter from the disability office. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in three adults under 45 with disabilities does not have a usual care provider.
“Assuming that every disabled student, even if they’re able to get the letter for their accommodations, that they can get you a doctor’s note every single time that they have a disability-related absence, is another burden,” said the student, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of backlash from professors.
At Berkeley, Nielson’s office is developing an online seminar to guide professors on how to work equitably with students with disabilities. But reaching professors can be challenging, especially at a large institution. Those who show up are often already invested in the topic.
Reopening With Equity
What reopening will look like for students with disabilities, and how much flexibility institutions will maintain, is still unclear.
Syreeta Nolan, a student at UC San Diego and co-founder of Disability in Higher Ed, said she questioned California’s commitment to its disabled students. The Governor’s Council for Post-Secondary Education in February released a report on Recovery With Equity -- a road map for reopening higher ed. But while the report discusses equity for Black, Latinx, Asian, Indigenous and adult learners, it doesn’t mention the barriers disabled students may face with reopening, or the ones they faced before the pandemic.
“We’re in these populations but face greater struggles because we’re silenced and unseen within [their movements],” she said. “It really doesn’t include anything about fostering inclusive institutions for disabled students.”
Reopening institutions could listen closely to disabled students, she said, and invest in tracking equity gaps between them and their peers after college.
“I don’t hold much hope for anything being better after the pandemic for disabled students,” she said. “We will still face the same struggles.”
A spokesperson for the Governor’s Council said postsecondary institutions should be welcoming and supportive of all students, including those with disabilities. “As campuses prepare for the return to in-person learning, improving systems so that each student can fulfill their potential should be top of mind.”
At Berkeley, Nielson said, the administration established a task force -- the Remote Accommodations Working Group -- to look into what types of flexibility the university can maintain.
“All of higher ed is going to be pushed in this regard,” she said.
Jennifer Billeci is director of the Student Disability Center at UC Davis -- the office that handles accommodations there. She said that while it is too early to say for sure, she suspects there will be more flexibility for students with disabilities when universities reopen. Though some have felt ease in the online environment, others crave a return to class.
“We are thinking about it both in our own office for students with disabilities and on campus in general,” she said. “The university in general is thinking about what this is going to look like.”
Nolan emphasized that without careful tracking by universities and systems, no one will totally know how higher ed is doing for disabled students.
“Disabled students are almost forced to become advocates,” she said. “Some will not choose advocacy -- some will just struggle in silence, by themselves.”