Editor’s note: This article is the second in a two-part series on the realities currently faced by students with disabilities.
In a time of unknowns and uncertainties, many students with disabilities are pushing for hybrid instruction, not as an accommodation, but rather, as a matter of ensuring public health.
“Forcing students to be in spaces where they feel unsafe is unacceptable,” said Rosa Enriquez, a graduate student in the Master of Social Welfare, or MSW, program. “It goes against everything the school stands for.”
Opening remote learning as a possibility for all allows students with disabilities without accommodations and those living with immunocompromised loved ones and elderly people to pursue their education safely, according to Enriquez.
As every student learns uniquely and every class operates differently — from chemical explosions in laboratories to chorale harmonization in music courses — campus senior Liza Mamedov-Turchinsky advocates for an equal amount of in-person and online courses.
Simultaneously providing in-person and remote education is challenging and in some cases impossible, according to Interim Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education Oliver O’Reilly.
Instructors teaching in classrooms with lecture-capture technology were asked to record lectures, but it is ultimately their decision whether they choose to do so, and “there is no expectation that (hybrid teaching) will be the norm,” O’Reilly added.
“We are an in-person university and our students have given us a lot of feedback that they want to learn in person,” O’Reilly said in an email. “Pandemic developments are hard to anticipate so we have focused on being operationally flexible, not on writing criteria that could quickly become outdated or irrelevant.”
While UC Berkeley is prepared to shift to remote instruction if public health conditions worsen, campus opted for a default mode of in-person instruction because hybrid teaching is taxing on instructors and can be unsatisfactory for students, O’Reilly said in the email.
Students and professors shoulder the weight
With the evolving nature of COVID-19 and limits of campus resources, some students and professors have felt trapped in a state of limbo.
In the Sept. 3 issue of UC Berkeley’s Response and Recovery newsletter, O’Reilly noted that more and more students were requesting accommodations to quarantine because they tested positive or were symptomatic. Professors were encouraged to “work with students to find a path forward,” according to the newsletter.
Lugging several laptops to her classroom in Dwinelle Hall, Celeste Langan, campus associate professor of English, prepared to project a PowerPoint while recording her class on Zoom for two students with disabilities.
However, neither computer would connect to the internet as campus experienced Wi-Fi issues, she said in an email.
“Despite the campus’ exhortations to faculty to make health- and disability-related accommodations, they are not making it easy for us to do so,” Langan alleged in her email.
Anticipating more absences than usual this semester, Langan added that campus administration could offer more support as they appear to be “placing most of the burden” of determining best practices on professors.
“A little breathing room,” said campus English professor Georgina Kleege, would provide some ease.
Kleege, who is blind, said people who have had disabilities for most of their life tend to assume something will go wrong in every situation; planning becomes habitual.
To accommodate students of all walks of life, Kleege provides multiple avenues to access course content, which includes recording lectures, posting audio recordings and sharing PowerPoints.
In an effort to start tearing down the physical and nonvisible barriers on campus, Kleege said there needs to be a shift from focusing on students and accommodations to the construct of education. People should be asking themselves who the physical spaces of classrooms and social practice of education are designed for, and if there is a better way to teach without excluding part of the population, she added.
After more than a year of remote instruction, Kleege said universities cannot continue to argue that it is not the same as in-person learning. There needs to be a larger investment in classroom technology so one day, students who may not have had the ability to come to UC Berkeley before can have that opportunity, she added.
Even when all goes smoothly and students with disabilities are able to attend class virtually, they are sometimes forced to give up their privacy, Enriquez noted.
In one of her classes, Enriquez alleged the professor projected her and another student enrolled in the Disabled Students Program, or DSP, joining via Zoom onto a screen before the entire class, causing them and other students with disabilities to feel “othered.”
If hybrid learning was available to everyone, Rosa Kelekian, a graduate student in MSW, noted that DSP students would feel less singled out.
In other classes, professors have been less forgiving.
During the first week of instruction, campus senior Samantha — who asked to remain anonymous because of privacy concerns — dropped four classes. Before then, she had never dropped a class.
In some cases, a mere glance at the syllabus was telling enough that the class was not feasible. In another case, hearing the professor explain that attendance is worth 20% of students’ grades was the breaking point, Samantha said. Raising her hand to ask about course policies if a student gets sick, she said, still felt like she was “bursting a bubble.”
To ensure students with disabilities can access the full potential of today’s technology, DSP is working to fund a position for an assistive technology specialist to perform technology evaluations and training, according to DSP Executive Director Karen Nielson.
‘Nothing about us, without us’: Giving students with disabilities a seat at the table
Hearing endless stories of discrimination on campus experienced by students with disabilities, Lisa Albertson, who founded Berkeley Disabled Students in 2015, works to educate students on their rights so they can push back.
“When you come to Berkeley, you’re not handed a booklet saying ‘Hey, in the event that you’re discriminated against, here’s what you do,’ ” she said. “We’re hoping for the best for students, but realistically, it happens every semester.”
Albertson, who transferred to UC Berkeley in 2009 and has nine more courses to complete before graduating, said students with disabilities reach out every semester to share the same “nightmare stories.” She also alleged that professors have questioned students’ nonvisible disabilities and doubted students with disabilities’ grades when performing higher than others.
Many people, Albertson said, express dismay that these stories come out of UC Berkeley, deemed the home of the Disability Rights Movement. But campus administration and local government were not the ones spearheading the activism.
“It was students and community members that fought for their rights, and fought for that change,” Albertson said.
Albertson alleged that historically, campus administration does not listen to students with disabilities’ demands and concerns, and instead drags out complaint processes over years until students either graduate or drop out.
These stories need to be retold to continue living, reminding UC Berkeley that students with disabilities are “here to stay,” Albertson said.
A common desire among students is for campus administration and students with disabilities to coalesce for meaningful conversations.
Khodamorad Moradpour, co-chair and historian of the ASUC Disabled Students Commission, or DSC, said UC Berkeley’s policy changes pertaining to the COVID-19 — the return to in-person instruction, for instance — have been made without coming to DSC, a voice for students with disabilities.
People who self-identify as disabled are involved in making academic policy, but they “do not necessarily ‘represent’ the disabled community in policy conversations,” according to campus spokesperson Janet Gilmore. Both DSP and DAC are consulted when changes are made, Gilmore added.
“The least that we’re asking is for them (campus administration) to allow us to have a less complicated life by providing us with access, which right now is Zoom access,” Moradpour said.
What lies ahead
UC Berkeley’s in-person mode of instruction has reverberations that could last a lifetime for students with disabilities.
A study from the University of Washington found that 30% of COVID-19 patients reported continued symptoms nine months after infection. Known as “long COVID,” lingering symptoms could grow into a mass-disabling event, Mamedov-Turchinsky said.
“We can help everyone, it just takes creativity and it takes maintaining health as the baseline,” Mamedov-Turchinsky said.
With symptoms ranging from extreme tiredness to brain fog impairing memory and concentration, long COVID can be considered a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act if it significantly limits a major life activity, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
As research on COVID-19 continues to unfold, conclusive evidence about the effects and prevalence of long COVID among the vaccinated remains to be seen. Nonetheless, Mamedov-Turchinsky said campus’s focus on vaccination as a main metric of safety could impact the lives of today’s students indefinitely.
UC Berkeley plans to hold most courses in-person in spring 2022, regardless of class size. A limited number of courses have been approved for alternative modes of instruction, and campus is looking into accommodations for students with disabilities or those who are immunocompromised.
While some students have been working tirelessly to overturn current policies and carry change into the future, others are left contemplating the past.
The panic and anxiety that gripped the world in the early days of the pandemic are still alive in many ways, but the compassion that came along with it seems to have waned.
“Ideally, this would have never happened. We would have waited. We would have provided better support,” Samantha said. “We just wouldn’t be here.”