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COVID-19 and the Unmasking of Ableism in Higher Ed

Updated: Mar 12

When I directed a disability services office for a graduate school for 5 years,* it was common knowledge across the field that students with disabilities (including various chronic illnesses) were not allowed to miss more than X number of class sessions per quarter without it being considered a "fundamental alteration" that compromised the integrity of the course (the number of allowed absences varies by department/institution based on policies in the corresponding student handbook). Another thing that wasn't usually (technically) allowed - again, not just at my institution but across institutions nationwide - was for disabled students to join an in-person class remotely via some kind of live streaming technology. This was also considered a "fundamental alteration" that compromised the integrity of the course. [Side note to say that certain faculty in all kinds of institutions would permit this unofficially, but disability services staff were not able to include these kinds of things as formal "accommodations" in a student's accessibility plan for their coursework.]


So imagine my surprise when all of a sudden institutions of higher ed all over the country are making all these concessions (and more) in response to precautions around COVID-19. Now students are being told to stay home if they have a respiratory issue, and attendance policies will be adjusted accordingly to make sure students are not unduly penalized. And courses that were only approved as in-person, face-to-face courses are suddenly open to online content and remote participation.



I'm not an epidemiologist and I have no idea what the right steps are that institutions and cities and countries should be taking in response to this virus. I'll leave that to the experts. But I'm glad institutions are being thoughtful and taking precautions and showing a willingness to adjust their systems in response to events that showed that the way their systems were designed didn't actually work for all situations and for all people.


But what this demonstrates is that the whole "fundamental alteration" explanation and fear of compromising "course integrity" was a charade masking structural ableism. I think most of us suspected this (or realized it fully), but we didn't have definitive evidence. What I and other disability service professionals (and students with disabilities themselves, as self-advocates, even more so) have been told, repeatedly, no matter how much we pushed for a student needing a more flexible attendance policy, or for the option for remote participation, was that ultimately these changes couldn't be made because the course would fundamentally no longer be the course - with all its core learning objectives maintained fully. The explanation was that those kinds of changes would alter the course to the point that the institution could not say with integrity (on a transcript) that the student truly took that particular course.


Those of us in disability services/higher ed accessibility were told things like, "What we do in the classroom is highly interactive and there's no possibility that those learning objectives could be met in any other way than regular in-person attendance and direct classroom participation." And ultimately, because these are not courses that we designed, and we are not experts in all of the fields of courses being taught, we had to defer to the statements by the faculty member or department head because they were the subject-matter experts.


Now, I'm not against in-person classes - I love them and they worked fine for me through all 26 years of my formal education. But I have talked with enough students with disabilities, chronic illness, and the like to know that they don't work for everyone; at least not with some flexibility or options for various modes of engagement needed to be accessible to a higher percentage of learners. (Some courses do that already, and God bless those faculty and course creators for realizing not everyone's brain works the same way, and that THAT'S BEAUTIFUL AND FINE.) Courses and academic programs are designed with a certain type of learner in mind, and honestly, it's a lack of creativity and willingness to adapt that has kept certain structures in place that don't serve the majority of students.


Except wait, now there's all kinds of willingness to adapt in the face of COVID-19. I was supposed to give a talk at a large university today and it was cancelled because they are shutting down the campus and sending students home from campus and the dorms - and will likely be allowing courses to be completed remotely/online.


One compelling outcome to all of this? There's now no coherent argument to be made that remote participation (when needed) or alternative ways to make up class participation/attendance (when someone has to miss due to disability or chronic illness) are inherently "fundamental alterations" of a course. All of these adjustments being made in this virus-laden cultural moment show that it's possible for an institution to change its requirements or course participation options in major ways without frantic hand-wringing over course integrity. We'll be able to refer back to this moment in the years to come (in both institutional conversations and in legal battles) to promote equity and reveal that if a school is willing to make adjustments for COVID-19 but not for students with disabilities...that's just structural ableism hiding behind the mask of so-called "academic integrity."




*It was Fuller Theological Seminary, but the specific institution doesn't matter at all because it's a much broader issue in the field as a whole across institutions nationwide. Fuller is not worse than any other institution (and there were some very flexible professors and beautifully accessible courses there, as I'm sure there are everywhere, but I didn't do this work anywhere else).

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