On July 26, we celebrate Disability Independence Day, the 30th anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The civil rights law prohibits discrimination against People with Disabilities (PwD) in all areas of public life (jobs, school, transportation and all spaces open to the general public) to ensure that PwDs have the same access and availability as anyone else.
This is an especially important distinction because, while COVID has affected us all, its impact on those with disabilities—specifically students—is particularly harsh. Disabilities include physical ones that impair full usage of our bodies, as well as hidden ones, which include ADD/ADHD, eating disorders, learning issues, anxiety, PTSD and more.
Students with disabilities face every issue that non-disabled students face during this difficult time – job loss, isolation, financial concerns. However, they also face heightened stressors that are unique to them.
When students return physically to campus, what happens to the student who experienced violent trauma and experiences PTSD when confronted by a masked person? What happens to the person with hearing loss who depends on lip-reading at a time when everyone’s mouths are covered by masks? These are important questions that will need to be addressed. For University leadership and students alike, this is all new territory with numerous concerns.
For instance, there are increased medical worries. “We know from students who have mental health conditions (depression, anxiety, OCD, etc.) that this has been an extremely challenging time…and it’s further impacted by limited access to typical health care providers,” said Director of Accessibility Resources and Service (ARS) Tiffany Bailey.
Exacerbating the situation is lack of access to necessary medicine. “Fear of medical rationing that targets disabled folks from getting life-saving treatment when there is a shortage of hospital supplies is a major stressor,” said Austin Tyner, who co-chairs UNC’s student-led Disability Advocates Committee with Sarah Anne Giles via the Campus Y.
Students are covered by Campus Health for medical and other health issues. However, other PwDs may not be so fortunate.
In addition to the medical worries, financial impacts and implications can exceed that of their peers. The reopening of some states poses a threat to those who are immunocompromised but need to work, compounding that stress. That financial concern is magnified by the limited access to well-paying jobs. “Statistically, disabled people are less likely to be hired, despite laws against discriminatory hiring practices,” noted Austin.
Further deepening these issues is the impact on low-income individuals who are statistically some of the most vulnerable populations. “In 2019, the US Department of Labor released statistics showing that 19.3 percent of persons with a disability were employed. In contrast, the employment population ratio for persons without a disability was 66.3 percent,” Austin added. “Workers with a disability are also more likely to work part-time and service occupations than abled people. When we consider the toll COVID-19 has taken on service industry employment rates due to the necessity to stay indoors, we can see the financial impact this is going to have on disabled Americans.”
Governmental support for this situation has been spotty, at best. “The federal government promised $175 billion from the Public Health and Social Services Emergency Fund to go towards disability service providers,” she says, “but very little has been distributed to those funded for the most part by Medicaid.”
UNC-Chapel Hill has both an emergency student relief fund and a COVID-19 relief fund available to those in need. Additionally, PwD living in NC can consult the NCDDD website for help navigating Social Security benefits, as well as accessing general information.
With these multiple stressors, mental well-being is a big concern for this community. “Being disabled can be an isolating experience under normal circumstances,” noted Austin. “Extended stays in hospital and inaccessibility of public spaces can all contribute to PwD being cut off from some of the socialization that able-bodied people [are able to access]. During COVID-19, this is amplified.” Therefore, a social support network, even a virtual one, is vital in supporting the mental health of PwDs.
UNC’s Digital Accessibility Office (DAO) has recognized the need to provide technological support to keep PwDs connected with others, both personally and academically. “Students with disabilities often have to plan in order to make sure their accommodations are in place,” said Brad Held, head of Digital Accessibility. “This pandemic has made scheduling and organizing difficult.”
Indeed, planning needs to be more flexible than ever now for Fall 2020, with remote instruction and housing considerations being main concerns.
Needs are numerous, depending on the situation. Students who are sight-impaired may need voice activation for audio access or larger onscreen images for better viewing, hearing-impaired students may require captioning, students with physical limitations may need special accessible technology to navigate their learning and connections, others may need minimally distracting images, and so on.
“I have a learning disability and used accommodations in college myself,” shared Brad,” [so I know how] important it is to make sure students have equal access. Our academic content should be inclusive to all students, regardless of their ability or assistive technology used.”
DAO has been working closely with many campus partners—including ARS (which encourages disabled students to register with them so that they can be sure that accommodations are met), Center for Faculty Excellence, and Digital & Life-Long Learning—to ensure remote instruction goes seamlessly.
From an academic perspective, there are some students with disabilities for whom online learning isn’t optimal. For them, the shift this past Spring was problematic due to their inability to control their environment, impacts of their learning disabilities and the challenges created by electronic materials.
“The greatest challenge is navigating what resources are available for students, given where they are geographically,” noted Tiffany. “Additionally, some of the access solutions we have typically implemented may not be appropriate, given that we are not currently on-campus. However, we’re involving students and our campus partners to work on creative solutions.”
The return to campus poses concerns about whether students with disabilities will find sufficient support. “Currently, there is a lot of uncertainty and we are hearing most from students who want to know the instructional models so schedules can be adapted and finalized and they can anticipate if additional accommodations are needed,” Tiffany said. “There is so much information that is going to be coming out in the next months, including course format, the structure of Carolina Away, etc. that it’s difficult to wait. But we are working with individual students on access considerations and with campus partners to provide clear communication and suggest approaches that encompass principles of Universal Design.”
Perhaps the greatest concern is the fear of the unknown. “The disabled community has always faced barriers to learning due to inaccessibility in the classroom—even within the University—so this dynamic new plan can be a little anxiety-inducing, especially since it is not fully fleshed out yet and we’ve yet to understand how these new class types and schedules will work for disabled people,” said Austin. “It is my hope and expectation that the University and its professors will provide accessible course content – captioned videos, audio description services, etc. whenever possible as we navigate online learning.”
How to Help
Allies can help, first and foremost, by being considerate. Observing the basic instructions to wash hands, wear masks and maintain social distancing will keep the virus from spreading. Beyond that, offering to help PwDs with tasks that require being in public – like shopping for groceries – can be helpful. Donating blood is also recommended to all who are able, as there is currently a shortage.
In addition, DAO provides several services and tools via help.unc.edu. These services are remote consulting on digital materials, training sessions on different digital accessibility topics, software tools for testing for digital accessibility, and access to an automated web accessibility scanning tool. Are most popular consulting concern for UNC staff and faculty has been around requirements captioning live events.
The Disability Advocates Committee is also compiling resources in order to inform the disabled community and their allies on where help can be found and where one can give help if they so desire.
As a University, we will get through the COVID-19 situation by supporting one another, remembering to act selflessly (wear a mask for OTHERS, not yourself) and facing the future with hope, optimism and a sense of community. Remembering to include every member of this community as we modify our lives is what will allow us ALL at Carolina to thrive.
By Adrianne Gibilisco, University Office for Diversity & Inclusion