We’ve all heard it, Zoom University sucks. It’s hard to focus, conversation is less fluid, lectures are less stimulating. In many ways, especially as someone who has ADHD, I agree with all of these sentiments. Unfortunately, ADHD is not my only disability. It is one among the rest, both physical and neurological. My disabilities are simply a fact of life that I have to manage, and that management is much easier at Zoom U.
Pre-COVID, there were many facets of university life that my classmates enjoyed but were inaccessible to me. Take, for example, language classes. When I came to Stanford, I’d tested out of the requirement, so I didn’t have to take any languages, but I really wanted to learn as many as possible. It was important to me.
Imagine my surprise when taking Spanish 1A turned out to be an absolute disaster. The class met every single day at 8:30 a.m. Due to my disabilities, executing this kind of attendance was simply not possible for me. My chronic pain plays a large role in my daily ability, and this class was very far away from EBF, where I lived. I have OAE accommodations to remedy this, of course, but the Spanish Language department was unwilling to accommodate me, citing the necessity of perfect attendance to their course goals. They insisted, to me and my disability advisor, that every single minute of the 2,500 minutes of Spanish class in one quarter was absolutely essential. I couldn’t even be late, let alone absent. So when my chronic pain made my journey to class slower, I was penalized, heavily, every time, even if I was only one minute late. These tardies compounded into “absences,” so when my illnesses made me actually absent, my grade was reduced even further. I appealed this, but my disability advisor told me there was nothing I could do, except file an official grievance, which probably wouldn’t even be settled until the quarter was over. Did I get those points back when my instructor was late? Or when class ended early? Of course not. Because these attendance-minutes weren’t necessary for the success of the course goals, but, rather, their “significance” was just thinly veiled ableism.
Additionally, the professor required that we use a physical textbook, which I was simply incapable of carrying. When I insisted on using my digital textbook, I was heavily scrutinized and asked what I was doing on my computer (trying to learn, in case you were wondering) in front of the whole class, multiple times.
Despite loving the material and excelling at Spanish acquisition, my grade in the class was abysmal due to attendance penalization. Even though I was taking it credit/no credit, I barely managed to pass each quarter.
Compare that, now, to my experience taking Italian 1A this quarter, which has been nothing but a joy. The class meets every day, for the same amount of time, but is significantly more accessible to me. I don’t have to walk to class, which makes it easier for me to attend and actually enjoy the class, because I experience less pain. Furthermore, the attendance policy for this class simply cannot be strict because connection issues happen to everyone at Zoom University. So when my disabilities cause me to be a few minutes late, it isn’t an issue, nor is it remarkable. I am able to quietly slip into the Zoom meeting, so overt attention isn’t drawn to my disability. I also do not have frequent anxiety attacks about getting to class on time, so that’s cool.
Additionally, because classes are online, we can use digital books, so not only do I not need to carry a heavy book, but I also can search the book and take digital notes, which is critical for my ADHD-compatible studying techniques and managing my hand pain.
Not only am I now capable of accessing all of my lectures, but I also meet weekly with a language tutor. Previously, this was a physical endeavor I just could not take on in addition to attending all of my actual classes. Now, I look forward to weekly Zoom meetings with my tutor – it’s one of the most fun parts of my week.
This is all to say that, prior to remote learning, I thought I would never be able to take another language class. The Spanish Language department had made it clear; they “couldn’t” make the class accessible. Taking the Spanish sequence took a massive emotional and physical toll on me. I was taking it for fun but suffering immensely. Seeing that it’s possible to make a language class accessible has been uplifting for me.
I am also now able to take science classes, such as Introduction to Earth Systems, that would have been inaccessible in the same way. Typically, a science class like EARTHSYS 10 meets four times per week. This class has three separate lectures plus an additional section meeting (a particularly long one, in the case of this class) per week. There’s also an expected, off-campus field trip component. That means four-plus additional “events” that I need to get to and from every week to take this class. To a humanities student, this is unfathomable to me. I don’t take lectures, generally. I take seminars; they meet twice a week for 80 minutes. They aren’t “less work” than science classes; the work just happens to be of a different type (reading and writing) that occurs in a different place (my room, the library) with significantly less travel. Thus, they are much more accessible. In all of my previous quarters at Stanford, this has led me, with my mobility limitations, to avoid science, math and CS classes. It severely limited the kind of majors that was open to me. Now, with the year online and all classes occurring from my room, I can actually take science classes for the first time, and I am excitedly exploring a potential Earth Systems coterm. But this all reveals something insidious: now that everyone is struggling with attendance, even the most rigid professors are being flexible (except you, Chemistry department. I see you). It shows that they were always capable of this flexibility. But, before the pandemic, my struggle — the struggle of disabled students — was not important.
Classes aren’t the only thing that became accessible to me when the world moved online. As I said, I have chronic pain. This pain builds, and there is only a limited number of things I can do or events I can attend in a day. In the past, this prevented me from participating in many of the student organizations that I wanted to be a part of. I would join them, but I often failed to make it to events I wanted to attend due to pain. This made it impossible to be a truly participatory member of any organization.
When everything moved to the internet, I was suddenly able to join so many more things, all of which are very dear and fulfilling to me and thus important for my mental health. I joined The Daily, of course, where I now hold a Desk Editor position. I also joined student government; I am an Executive Fellow for Affordability at the ASSU. In the past, all of these things required certain physical participation that I couldn’t be reliably capable of.
These aren’t the only activities that have become newly accessible to me, but they are some of the most important ones. My life as a Stanford student has improved in so many ways post-Zoom U. Suddenly, I feel so much more “like” my classmates, capable of attending things that are important to me. Because I’m not constantly completely drained by school, I can actually just go outside and go for a walk, something that would have felt impossible, considering my pre-COVID pain and fatigue levels. I feel like a regular student, far less limited by my physical ability.
So when I hear my classmates vent about hating Zoom, wanting to return to partying or mad they can’t live on the Row, I sympathize. I also struggle with certain facets of Zoom. I also miss socialization and parties. I also miss living on the Row.
But when I hear them say how they can’t wait to “return to normal,” I also feel a pang in my chest, because I know that such a return may make many of the fulfilling, meaningful activities I do now inaccessible to me again.
So if you’re an organizer, instructor, administrator or decider of any sort, remember this op-ed when we go “back to normal.” The necessity of online instruction has brought attention to how easy it actually is to remedy many of the structural inequities disabled students face. Consider continuing to allow Zoom tutoring at Hume or being more flexible with attendance in all cases. No longer can you say, “I can’t accommodate that” or “Flexibility interferes with my course’s learning goals.”
And before you emote about how excited you are to go “back to normal,” maybe consider reflecting on the things that have been pleasant about online school or consider the plight of the disabled friend you’re venting to. I, too, am excited for my friends to come back to campus, but for me, and many others, that comes hand-in-hand with the fear of going back to the status quo of inaccessibility.
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