Though the coronavirus pandemic upended life as usual for billions worldwide, college students — especially those living away from home — were especially affected by the upheaval. Millions of students across the U.S. and Canada evacuated campuses throughout the month of March, with many returning home to live with parents and family members. Adjusting to the “new normal” of stay-at-home orders, online classes, and separation from one’s campus community was difficult for many, but those who are underrepresented and underserved faced special challenges. Students with disabilities faced the difficulties of remote learning without the support and accommodations normally available on campus. Many LGBTQ students reported having to hide their sexual or gender identities from family members, facing judgment and disapproval, and experiencing isolation upon returning home.
For Rudra Maharaj, an undergraduate at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Canada, having to leave campus came with plenty of challenges. Maharaj, who is non-binary, suffers from a physical disability that affects note-taking and requires breaks during class. Maharaj shared some of their experiences of the COVID-19 pandemic with INSIGHT.
What is your disability? I have osteoarthritis in my knees, and I have an unknown disability in my hands that causes joint pain, deformities in my fingers, and weight-bearing issues.
How had your experience with school been with your disability prior to the pandemic? Fairly awful, because there is a lack of accessibility legislation where I live, along with a lack of visibility of disability issues in general in Canada, particularly in British Columbia. I’ve often had to educate my professors about my disability and how to include me in the classroom and how to make their classrooms more accessible to me. I’ve also had a significant amount of issues with different aspects of my university such as the sustainability department and the disability office.
How has the COVID-19 crisis affected you? How has the transition to online classes been? The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly affected me as well as my future. I was planning on getting an internship over the summer, but this pandemic has caused many of those positions to be terminated. This is unfortunate for me in particular since I was planning to work in order to save money to move out and start transitioning once I finished university.
I am unable to be out as nonbinary and as queer right now because my parents are incredibly transphobic and homophobic, so it would genuinely put my life into jeopardy if I were to come out right now. I’ve also been unable to receive any sort of medical care for my disabilities because the clinics that I go to are now closed.
The transition to online classes has been difficult because my accommodations have basically been thrown out the window. My main accommodations are a note taker and up to two breaks during classes if I need to. I’ve been unable to receive any notes for my classes since my school went fully online. While some of my classes have been shorter because they are online (mainly via BlackBoard) I have not been able to take breaks as I usually do because of the expectation that I remain logged in as long as the class is running.
Have instructors been accommodating? Have you made your disability aware to your instructors? My professors have been accommodating if I’ve brought up an issue with them, but this is mainly with professors with whom I’ve had a good working relationship. I have made my instructors aware of my disability because it’s very visible, as I can’t exactly hide my cane. There’s also very few visibly disabled students in my department and I’ve frequently had to educate my professors about my disability and how to include me in the classroom. It’s often on me to educate my professors because otherwise the barriers in the classroom would not come down an inch for me.
What does the higher education community need to know about students with disabilities during the pandemic and in general? The higher education community needs to acknowledge that disabled students are getting left behind during this pandemic. Many of us are struggling with getting medical care and treatment during this time and the ways we need to be accommodated for online classes are different compared to an in-person class.
There also needs to be more acknowledgement that not everyone’s home situation is good and that the closing of university campuses means that a lot of the resources that were previously available to us are gone now with nothing to replace them.●
Mariah Stewart is a senior staff writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity. This article was published in our July/August 2020 issue.