Higher education for the disabled

COVID-19 and the issues of supposed normalcy

Maitreya Shah

disability, accessibility, virtual education

With the challenges of Covid-19, frequent natural disasters, genuphobia, racism and transphobia amongst others, the world is surely witnessing the most unprecedented times today. What is also being witnessed is a far-ranging conversation on the impact of these manifold challenges on various sections of the society, especially the ones marginalised. The issues that however receive the least attention pertain to persons with disabilities, who ironically constitute the largest marginalised group with close to 1 billion of the world population. From inaccessible healthcare resources and behavioural effects of social-distancing to exclusion in the new (virtual) world order, the challenges for persons with disabilities are too many and too wide-ranging to be included in a single piece. This blog is hence restricted to the impact on higher education of students with disabilities, epitomised by my personal experiences.

To give a brief background for the tone of this blog, I am a lawyer with blindness based in India, having recently completed my undergrad studies from Gujarat National Law University in its 2015-20 batch. With years of doggedness in overcoming some of the most persistent challenges of inaccessibility and exclusivity and after months of strenuous labour in writing those applications, I finally made it to four of the top law schools in the United States-University of Pennsylvania Carry Law School, UC Berkeley, New York University School of Law and Georgetown University Law Centre. The resultant happiness was however only momentary-barely lasting a week or two at the beginning of March, just before the United States (US) had started receiving its worst-share of the global pandemic. Throughout the month that followed, both the pandemic and my ensuing emotions had turned erratic, drawing me into extended phases of haze and uncertainty.

While schools in the US were still optimistic of starting the fall semester on campus, I was particularly unsure if I would be able to make it to the US even with all the safety measures in place. Disability brings with itself some extraordinary challenges, often non-conforming with the societal assumption of normalcy in such situations of crisis. As Lennard Davis (1995) puts it, this normalcy constructs the ‘problem of the disabled’, different from the ‘normal’ or ‘average’ features of the society. For instance, the idea of ‘social distancing’, presented as the new way of life, is far from possible for a person with a disability.

Given the significance of touch-enabled access for a person with blindness, social distancing only opens a can of worms, making it extremely difficult to access even the bare minimum necessities of life.

With the challenges of international travel, increased risk of infection, difficulties in independent living and riots motivated by racial discrimination amongst others, even the hope of ‘returning of back to normal’ seemed to be blurring away.

In such unprecedented times, where some Indian universities are still adamant in administering examinations for their graduating batches, many universities across the world are also reluctant in giving flexible options like deferrals to people, even for those with exceptionally compelling circumstances like disability. Recently, a disabled Indian student with muscular dystrophy stranded in the United Kingdom had to put his wheelchair for sale, since there was no accessible, affordable way of him to come back home. Such deplorable conditions also force parents to become over-protective of their children; often choosing their lives over the prospects of education and learning.

While physical presence for persons with disabilities is already ruled out, the virtual sessions and online examinations are also not of much help. If virtual activities are alternatives to physical-gatherings, what does one do when the so-called alternatives are also exclusionary?

Despite many empowering legislations in place, digital accessibility for the disabled still remains a distant dream; in this pandemic especially, the mandatary virtual education has only intensified this ‘digital exclusion’.

From inaccessible websites to non-availability of reading materials, the challenges are countless. In several Asian countries like India, Bangladesh and Pakistan, millions of people with disabilities do not even enjoy access to accessible technologies. The new-normal of distance-education, both from institutions within the native countries and abroad, thus remain very out of the league for them. Many international agencies like the Educational Testing Service (ETS) also fail to provide adequate reasonable accommodations to students in developing countries in their examinations. Fortunately, Penn Law, my choice amongst the offers received, was much flexible in its communication with the incoming candidates. Having said that, I would still avoid choosing a virtual session for all the reasons explained above, and many more to be thought about.

As an aftermath of Covid-19, the financial stability of people is also adversely affected, given the rampant loss of employment and increased expenses. For a person with a disability, accessible living is a costly affair; something that shoots up the monthly budget by a great extent. From expenses on accessible accommodation and travel to enabling technologies and assistive devices, the expenses are usually a huge toll on the pockets. In developed countries especially, a study has estimated an overall increase of US$1,170 to $6,952 per year only for health and accessibility-related expenses. In times of a pandemic, these expenses are only bound to increase. For a student moving from a developing Asian country to universities in the United States, the United Kingdom, Singapore or Australia, the currency conversion rate will also play its part in worsening the budgetary calculations. In such circumstances, some universities rub salt on these wounds with policies of not deferring the students’ scholarships, or of not refunding the fees in cases where classes are shifted online or deferrals not granted. Again, the assumption of normalcy is apparent; the attitude that the problem is of, and with the disabled, to be dealt with by them on their own.

Given such manifold challenges, the pandemic has surely ruined the dreams of many disabled students both studying and planning to study in institutes of higher education. Where this ‘enforced normalcy’ leaves little room for a disabled body to find a normal for itself, the mind keeps grappling with the rebel tendencies within, creating the inevitable, unwanted tensions between bodily experiences and psychological tremors.

It is hence of vital importance that the Covid-19 response be more inclusive and less normal for people who do not possess the privileges of an average human being.

While I can only hope to realise my dreams of higher education in the United States in the coming year, the pandemic and the social barriers have left scars that will probably remain afresh for several years to come.

References

Davis, L. (1995) Enforcing Normalcy. London, Verso.

Maitreya Shah is a lawyer with blindness based in India. He is a LAMP Fellow in the 2020-21 cohort and an IEF-Internet Law and Policy Foundry Fellow in the 2019-21 cohort. He is on track for the completion of post-graduate studies in law at the University of Pennsylvania Carry Law School on the Dean’s Merit Scholarship. Maitreya has extensively worked for disability rights research and advocacy, in the areas of access to justice, inclusive education, digital accessibility and intersectionality. He is also a technology policy researcher and has previously been a Research Assistant to the National Cyber Security Coordinator (Prime Minister’s Office), India. His core interest lies in technology and human rights. Social media accounts: Facebook and LinkedIn