Increase in Accessibility: The Unexpected Silver Lining of COVID-19

Increase in Accessibility: The Unexpected Silver Lining of COVID-19

Shelby Smith

This article is part of the Winter 2020 Magazine Issue series. To read the full Winter issue click: here.

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to take center stage in the U.S. and around the world, the desperate search for normalcy tredges on as well. The solution for how to keep the world turning means a shift to online and remote work and learning for many. Perhaps inadvertently, this shift has led to a revamping of accessibility, and with it, more professional and academic opportunities for people with disabilities. 

Prior to the pandemic, individuals in the disability community often had to tirelessly advocate for themselves for accessibility and understanding to acquire equal footing with their abled peers. It simply isn’t the status quo. This begs the question of why such online resources haven’t been widely available to those in need of them before now. At Michigan State University, these steps towards accessibility aren’t new.

MSU and the Resource Center for Persons with Disabilities have worked for decades to make a Spartan education truly accessible for all. Caleb Sandoval is one such advocate at the RCPD who works specifically with students with chronic health disabilities. 

Since the implementation of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, institutions of higher learning and workplaces must uphold the outlined standards and policies to prevent disability discrimination. According to the act itself, the purpose of the ADA is “to provide a clear and comprehensive national mandate for the elimination of discrimination against individuals with disabilities.” Of course, implementation and enforcement become a separate issue, and MSU works to bridge this gap for students and faculty. 

“Michigan State has already been a pioneer for accessibility. We have positions and departments already created to address accessibility compliance and offer our students and staff the most options possible, even before the pandemic,” said Sandoval.

Not everyone, even within the MSU community, with a disability takes part in this legal safeguard of their rights. For some, the steps to equity feel insurmountable. This feeling may result from a lack of awareness about accommodations or even a sense of hopelessness for individuals who have a history of struggling to have their needs met. 

MSU senior, Daniel, whose name has been changed for confidentiality, struggles with chronic depression and anxiety but hasn’t yet registered with the RCPD to receive a Verified Individualized Services and Accommodations document.

“Being this deep in it, I’ve had a hard time even mustering the energy to go deal with the process of getting formal accommodations. I didn’t know about the RCPD when I first became a student. I tried to get my accommodations last year, but didn’t follow the process all the way through,” said Daniel. “My entire college career, I’ve struggled with anxiety over missed classes and deadlines as a result of my depression and have had problems getting professors to be understanding in the past.”

Why must one prove their struggle for it to be validated and accommodated by others? In a perfect world, requests for extensions and calls for help from students would always be met with empathy and a belief that people are doing their best. The universal experience of struggling with COVID-19 seems to, in some ways, be working toward that goal.

“I think there’s a nationwide enlightenment happening in thinking about the people you work and learn with being as human. Remote work has certainly contributed to this,” Sandoval said. “I think people who might have been less open to hearing messages about the importance of empathy will be less inclined to be that way going forward, because of the way the pandemic has been a struggle for every single person.” 

“Some people who may have been able to sort of dodge the bullet of having your body or mind affect you in ways you can’t control have some experience in this now. Everyone has been significantly impacted in ways they couldn’t have even seen coming by this pandemic.”

With the seemingly endless trials and tribulations that come with the coronavirus pandemic comes a spike in mental health struggles, even for those who have never experienced depression or anxiety before. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and their report on mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic, “symptoms of anxiety disorder and depressive disorder increased considerably in the United States during April–June of 2020, compared with the same period in 2019.” As the pandemic dredges on indefinitely, these symptoms are likely to affect even more people. As more people continue to develop and struggle with mental health issues, there is a pivotal increase in empathy and understanding about such struggles.

Daniel has found this to already be the case in his experience. He said, “Even without yet having a VISA, my professors have been more accommodating this year than ever before when I share with them that I’m having a hard time. I reached out to a professor after I missed a deadline and was vulnerable about the fact that I’ve been having panic attacks and struggling to do my work. She responded in a way I’m not used to from professors and had no problem giving me an extension on my work and even asking if there was anything she could do to help.”

Adjusting to a world where what was once normal may now be dangerous has created a new outlook on how to make the world around us fit the needs of all individuals. For those in the disability community, it can be frustrating that it took a global pandemic to get here, but many are celebrating the increase in accessibility. 

“Some of my students at the RCPD have actually reported things being easier now with remote classes than they were before. They had so much trepidation about going to classes at all because of how likely they are to get sick in that less controlled environment,” /// said Sandoval. “For some students, who have a stable home life, it’s been calming to be able to work from home when there is an adequate learning experience being offered to them.”

Even Daniel is experiencing this new hope. “I felt like I had begun to get a better grasp on dealing with my anxiety and depression and its impact on my life. Of course, with the pandemic it’s gotten much harder, but I’ve reached back out to the RCPD and am currently trying to set up a needs assessment to get a VISA,” he said. 

Though the country and the world collectively long for the day they can put the coronavirus pandemic behind them, some of its effects are worth maintaining. Receiving support, accommodation, and consideration in higher education and beyond should always be a priority, even when the pandemic isn’t at the forefront of motivations.

“Creating educational experiences that are more universally accessible to all students right out the gate should have been the goal in the first place, and I’m glad to see that’s where people are now,” said Sandoval.

The world will never quite be the same after the pandemic, but with any luck, these positive changes are here to stay.

Shelby Smith is a senior double majoring in English and professional and public writing with a concentration in creative writing. Outside her time spent on The Current and with the MSU Writing Center, Shelby likes to read, attempt to author her own works, and watch something she’s already seen on Netflix.