On accessibility and community amid COVID-19

By

Dear Stanford community,

When the petition for staying on campus came out on March 10, I completed one. Mine was supported by a medical note, since I have a neurological condition triggered by stress and my doctor wanted me to stay on campus so that I could actually attend my appointments. It was supported by the fact that I’ve been declared independent from my parents due to significant financial and emotional abuse. It was supported by the fact that I receive accommodations from the Office of Accessible Education (OAE), some of which require in-person assistance and/or hard copies of tactile graphics. This petition was not approved, and I was given no way to ask for reconsideration, even after approaching my residence dean. I am still angry about this.

Classes in the last week were held online via Zoom. One of my professors said that she would be taking attendance, but that only students with video on would be counted as present. This was said to the class over Zoom. As a blind student who isn’t remotely interested in filming things, I have had little reason to learn how video cameras work. My roommate was sleeping at the time, and like most students, I consider my room a personal space that I did not want invaded, especially since I wouldn’t know exactly what people were seeing. I had to ask, textually via the Zoom chat, if I could count as an exception due to my circumstances. I received an answer, verbally in front of everyone, which only drew attention to my disability. Anyone who knows me also knows that I do plenty of that anyway, in an effort to help people feel more comfortable with the ways I’ve adapted to life, but that’s different from a professor specifically saying, “Yes Cricket, you can be an exception to this rule because you’re blind.” I felt incredibly uncomfortable.

Since these incidents occurred, I’ve been thinking about the meaning of accessibility and how it applies to online education. Ordinarily, I consider it in an academic setting, as a set of accommodations that allow me to have slightly more equal footing with my peers. Due to the fact that accessibility is hardly ever considered until the last minute however, this equal footing is not often achieved. But due to the challenges we’re now facing with this pandemic, accessibility means so much more than that.

At the very least, accessibility means having a safe place where students are comfortable pursuing their education, and where significant disruptions are few and far between. Normally this would be Stanford’s campus, but in the face of this virus, we have to rely on whatever environment we’re living in. Even if I were welcome at my parents’ house, it wouldn’t be safe due to the abuse and to the nature of the space or lack thereof. This is a problem that I’m sure many of us can relate to in some form. For a few hours, I thought I was going to be on the streets because of the way the University chose to handle my situation. Thankfully, I have a fantastic support network and am now living in Philadelphia with a phenomenal person who I’ve known and worked with for a while. However, this does not change the fact that I can’t attend my medical appointments or receive accommodations from the OAE in nearly as timely a manner as I have in the past. I’m sure many students can relate to this. Also, due to the uncertainty of my circumstances, I don’t know if I’ll be able to spend all quarter here, and the stress associated with that could both exacerbate my neurological condition and negatively impact my ability to perform academically. I also now have far more responsibility associated with living in a new place.

Considering accessibility from a purely online angle, education is about to become far more difficult. Part of this will be due to time zones. I’m only three hours ahead of Pacific Time, but that means a class ending at 6 will end at 9,  interrupting my evening routine, which includes sleep and self-care, and which now also includes making dinner and other associated tasks. There are also plenty of students who live abroad, where time zone differences are much more significant, and where dates are even different. If more professors have an attendance policy demanding that video be kept on, many students’ home lives could be exposed in ways that are entirely unfair both to themselves and to their living companions — and this is supposing that people have the bandwidth to do this, both mentally and technologically. One friend suggested adjusting back to Pacific Time, but this is both unhealthy and unfair. We should not have to do this for so many reasons, and our lives should not be interrupted nearly as much as they are about to be. And this isn’t even touching on how complicated the lives of students with disabilities are about to become due to the current incompatibility of assistive technology with online educational platforms. Again, I’m happy to have this conversation with anyone who is interested.

While it would be sort of fun to use this strictly as a place to complain, I feel that providing some suggestions will be much more useful. To the faculty: I am not asking for pity or anything similar. I’m asking for flexibility in terms of attendance and due dates, not just for myself but also for everyone. I’m asking for discussion sections to be heavily considered before being mandated because, again, time zones will make them incredibly difficult. I’m asking for all lectures to be recorded to help allow students to stay healthy. I’m asking for group projects to also be heavily considered before being mandated, since even coordinating a few people’s schedules will be hard due to increased responsibility. But most importantly, I’m asking for understanding. I know that there’s a lot of course content that needs to be covered in a short amount of time, and I love that. Learning new stuff is one of my favorite things to do, but this quarter, I want you to understand that a lot of that learning will be associated with the other aspects of life, which we ordinarily wouldn’t have to approach nearly as quickly as we do now. Make your courses accessible to everyone by taking the diversity of circumstances into account, and if you hear about a specific student’s situation, keep it confidential as much as possible.

To my fellow students: I am so proud to be a part of the Stanford community. Especially in the last few days that I was able to be on campus, I saw so many people reaching out to help others. There’s often a complaint about a general lack of community on campus, and while this may be somewhat true, I think a community is really defined by how its occupants deal with unpredicted disasters like this one. And we dealt with it incredibly well. Thank you for that. I’m asking you to approach this next quarter with open minds, despite the changes that are happening both academically and otherwise. The new grading system may seem unfair, and probably will be for a lot of people, but we are still privileged to have this opportunity available to us. I’m asking you to prioritize self-care, which I know can be incredibly difficult due to the academic intensity associated with college in general and Stanford in particular.

But most importantly, I’m asking you to remember that I’m here for you. I am one of you, and while I cannot relate to the vast majority of people’s circumstances, I’ll always be here as a resource. If you need me as an advocate, drop me an email at [email protected] I have plenty of practice dealing with adverse circumstances, and I will do absolutely everything within my power to prevent you from being treated unfairly. If you need me more as someone to talk to and connect with, send me an email at [email protected] Let’s transcend the distance that separates us by getting through these tough times together.

All the best,

Cricket X. Bidleman ’21 (she/her/hers)
Director of Communications, Associated Students of Stanford University (ASSU)

Contact Cricket Bidleman at bidleman ‘at’ stanford.edu

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