I don’t want everything to go back to normal. Many of the academic and social accommodations given to able-bodied and neurotypical people to protect them from COVID-19 are accommodations the disabled and neurodivergent community has needed for years. For everything to return to normal would be devastating.
Pre-pandemic, when I told the people in the administration who were supposed to look out for me that I was struggling, they told me to take a semester off. They made me prove that I needed the accommodations that everyone is benefiting from now. Accommodations that I never thought possible — that would have revolutionized my college experience — now exist for every student by default. Why were my needs “special” when they clearly benefit us all?
I was told by three high-ranking Williams administrators that the solution to my inability to navigate Williams’ inaccessible campus was for me to take a semester off. As if campus ableism would magically disappear in my absence. Chronic illness is just that — chronic. It doesn’t go away, and many chronic illnesses in fact worsen over time. Why would they rather I leave Williams than create an inclusive environment for me to thrive? Unfortunately, this is a bit of a rhetorical question. If I weren’t here, their lives would be much easier, so of course they’d rather not have to modify their beloved Strategic Plan to be inclusive. Not even inclusive, because apparently that would be asking too much. Just legal (ADA compliant) would be great.
While I struggled for years to participate in this campus without adequate accommodations, this academic year, professors started class by offering multiple options to participate, introducing flexible attendance policies, and encouraging students to reach out for help because of “this difficult time”. My normal is a difficult time. These accommodations were given to protect non-disabled and neurotypical students. If it’s so easy to livestream class now for people who don’t want to attend in person, why didn’t we livestream before for the people who needed it? If we can make closed captions and transcripts available now so people can multitask or do other things and still participate, why didn’t we provide them for people who need them to process or receive information? If telehealth is so easy, even preferred now, why were we refused remote appointments before? If attendance policies can be flexible for anyone, including those who don’t need it, why couldn’t they have been flexible before for the people who did? If we can allow people to work from home now — and some companies now prefer it to save office space — why didn’t we allow it for people who would benefit from control over their own environment? We have been missing out on so much. For every accommodation you’ve benefited from in the pandemic, the disabled and neurodivergent community would have benefited from it long before.
As more and more people get vaccinated, I am surrounded by phrases like “I see the light at the end of the tunnel” and “soon we can go back to normal” and “I can’t wait until everything is in person again.” Please don’t strive to go back to things exactly the way they were. Life was unnecessarily difficult when we couldn’t get the accommodations we needed. When it is safe to be close to each other, consider adding accommodations to those that already exist, such as companionship programs for support and care webs to share resources and knowledge. Please don’t take away the accommodations that have been so revolutionary for our community.
For those of you who are in charge of event planning, academic or social, talk to people with disabilities and listen to what they need in order to participate. Throwing a party once it’s safe to do so? Also plan a virtual get-together for those who would benefit from virtual participation. Consider where you’re holding your movie nights. Is there an accessible path to your common room? Probably not if you live in most of the upper class dorms, so relocate your event. Holding an a cappella concert in the basement of a building without an elevator? I imagine the acoustics are better when everyone can participate… so move the event. I could continue endlessly with ableist spaces on campus not just perpetuated by the administration, although they cause most of my problems, but perpetuated by students as well. Please don’t go back to creating spaces like the way they were before — they were exclusionary and cruel.
Awareness of ableism is increasing. Even jocks reference the term, even if they don’t respect its significance. (Seriously, just Google “ableism and athletics” and educate yourself, and then don’t use “blind” incorrectly please.) I recommend before doing any formal writing at least reading this post or this guide.
My standards are low. Williams admin: Just follow the law please — it’s honestly confusing why you haven’t already. Williams faculty: Just keep the accommodations you have now in place even after it’s “safe” to be in person again. Williams students: Please be nicer. And take care of each other. I promise you, including disabled and neurodivergent people in your spaces will make your lives better.
Below are a handful of the many access barriers I’ve experienced here, the traumatizing way in which Williams responded when I asked for help, and the current COVID-19 accommodations that improve access but that I was never given pre-pandemic.
Problems I faced
How Williams responded
Accommodations available for able-bodied people now that would have helped then
Dorm without an elevator [access barrier] → missing class [exclusion]
“Take the semester off”
Option to log into class remotely
Dorm without an elevator + steps from Greylock to Paresky + need to stand in line for food [access barrier] → not eating [decreased health]
“Take the semester off”
Option to order food so others can pick it up
Not eating and missing class [decreased health from access barrier] → went home [exclusion]
“Provide a doctor’s note or proof”
Medical challenges in mornings + mandatory classes in the morning [access barrier] → missing class [exclusion] or exacerbated health problems [decreased health]
“Take the semester off”
Recorded lectures and/or transcript, flexible attendance policies
Limited auditory processing + only oral lectures [access barrier] → missing information [exclusion]
Provided a notetaker, often with illegible handwriting and/or incomplete notes
Closed captions and transcripts
Inaccessible locations for events and guest lectures [access barrier] → inability to attend [exclusion]
Nothing — just not expected to participate in this aspect of campus life
Health Center and Integrative Wellbeing Services far from first-year dorms [access barrier] → lack of access to health providers [decreased health]
Call CSS (stay tuned for the problems with this in a future op-ed)
Abby Fournier ’21 is a political science major from Natick, Mass.