Disabled perspective: Keep the online option

Illustration of an overwhelmed student
Kelsey Choe/Staff

Related Posts

The lifting of pandemic restrictions was intended to be gradual, but it occurred in a flurry of movement instead, in a frantic attempt for perfect restoration. The last couple months saw crowds filling shops, restaurants, clubs and — more recently — the UC Berkeley campus.

Though the delta variant continues to sweep through the nation, schools have begun opening their doors. The intent is clear: to sweep the trauma, mass death and grief of the last two years under the rug — to look away from atrocities of the United States’ mismanagement that seem too violent to admit. The dark, spanning underbelly of this rapid departure from caution is a blatant disregard for disabled lives. Acknowledging lives like mine by incorporating online options for all classes is significantly crucial to recognizing and healing from the trauma of the last couple years.

UC Berkeley has decided to participate in full-force opening through extreme limitation of online course availability. Instead of coupling its open doors with an online option for every class, campus is offering only about 600 fully remote courses, in contrast to the nearly 6000 courses it is offering in person. UC Berkeley has also enforced a requirement that classes be either in person or asynchronous — not both. The university refused to carry over memories of its own expanded accessibility. Its complete reset ignores the relief that online courses afforded many disabled students.

About two years ago, following recurrent infections, I began experiencing symptoms of myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome, or ME/CFS. It started with weeklong stretches that suddenly sapped my breath. I couldn’t sit upright or even walk across my bedroom floor without tremendous dizziness. I sunk into an aching grief, a cavity in my chest, unable to name the force pinning my limp muscles into the mattress.

The worst of it was the fog. A thought would float into the dense cloudiness of my mind and disappear just as quickly, losing itself in the blur. During the worst of my illness, in spring 2021, I bashed my head into walls, picked my legs and left welts in my skin. Clarity only felt achievable through pain. Finally, I was diagnosed in March, the peak of pandemic exhaustion.

COVID-19 wasn’t the reason behind my ME/CFS, but the chronic illness has seen a surge in patients suffering for long periods of time from COVID-19. According to a UC Davis study, a whopping 25% to 33% of patients with COVID-19 are affected long term, suffering from a cluster of symptoms including abdominal pain, affected taste buds, shortness of breath, fatigue and chest pain. These are all symptoms which greatly overlap with the exhaustion of ME/CFS. The onset of long-lasting COVID-19 symptoms in many patients has greatly expanded the disabled population and, in doing so, has brought a magnifying glass on their struggle. Full, unaccommodated reopening depends on neglecting the outpour of disabilities incurred during the pandemic.

The vast majority of the disabled and immunocompromised population at UC Berkeley faces a difficult choice for their method of instruction this coming fall. We are all in states of instability. For example, if I choose to withdraw from school for my health and well-being, I may lose the insurance that covers most of my medical treatment. If I choose to attend classes in person, I am more likely to become sick and fall behind in school.

Though campus represents a class gateway and the shaping of our intellectual landscape, this decision is almost a quiet eugenics. Disabled students’ abilities to thrive are suppressed, their voices are quieted and their presence is forgotten.

Though I made the choice to attend in person, I cannot imagine picking up this weighted pain and walking across campus again, somehow adding physical stress to the already unbearable mix of emotional anguish and academic pressure. I cannot imagine huge sections of a newly disabled student population navigating their states of chronic pain along with the campus.

The university is attempting to soldier on, to repress the trauma of the pandemic and cycle back into its regular, grueling sessions without much, if any, of a contemplative glance behind. But trauma is not invisible. It is being carried in bodies that will not withstand what others have forgotten.

Trauma is disabling. Students of all years are entering campus with lost parents, siblings, friends and even homes. They are entering without their final years of high school or without their first years on campus. They are coming in without steady footing, holding enormous amounts of grief and loss in a world pretending it never happened. Online courses which finally, in their accommodation of mass trauma, allowed many physically disabled, socially anxious and neurodivergent students to flourish, have been rushed away with the wave, like cutting off a lifeline.

There is an undeniable conclusion here: Regardless of case surges due to the delta variant or how safe a full reopening may be, a vast section of the student population is emerging from the pandemic in a disabled state. A disabled campus deserves — and needs — accommodation.

To acknowledge the immunocompromised and physically disabled students of the school is also to acknowledge the pandemic, its aftermath and the space traumatized students need to flourish. A binary reset like the one Cal is attempting will tumble apart. We need and deserve the option of online courses, a choice which would allow a gradual reentry and an acknowledgement of the past.

Devaki Dikshit is a rhetoric major at UC Berkeley. Follow them at @DevakiDevay on Twitter.