In-person learning requires more resources for mentally and physically disabled students

Kyle King

Returning students may feel free from being instructed through a screen, and incoming students will finally have the opportunity to take in the environment and the intimacy of the college experience that was stripped from them amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

There are, however, groups of people that may not experience the same relief or eagerness to return to in-person classes. Students who suffer from various types of disabilities may not feel relieved.

For students afflicted with physical disabilities, college campuses throughout the nation are under siege for transitioning their courses to in-person exclusively. Returning to normalcy presents new challenges for not only students who struggle to navigate campus, but also those who are immunocompromised and have underlying conditions that increase the risk of illness from COVID-19. 

From my experience, professors at Augie will only allow virtual class attendance if a student is suffering from COVID symptoms or quarantine. In short, any situation that falls outside of these parameters has to be addressed by the office of disability services on a case-by-case basis.

Remote learning should be interpreted as an accommodation readily open to those in need instead of an inconvenience. A New York Times piece supports this argument, conveying how “knowing that online classes are an option can help students with disabilities by assuring them that there is a safety net.” 

Ella Callow, the director of the University of California-Berkeley’s office of disability access and compliance claims that “college campuses are a microcosm of the ableism people with disabilities face across the country because society was not built with disability in mind.”

Augustana College is no exception. A 2018 Observer piece by Brady Johnson discussed the inconsistent supports provided to students with physical disabilities on campus, which have remained intact. For example, the lack of residential hall access still persists, like how Westerlin’s J-wing remains the only one with elevator access. 

Physically handicapped students might have been relieved at the concept of distance learning in order to avoid the strenuous terrain of campus, but with returning to in-person full-time, this group is subjected to hardships and difficulties. 

Shifting to the mental disability perspective, it is evident that the turbulent COVID-19 pandemic has severely impacted mental health issues, which institutions like Augustana need to accommodate for.

Anxiety, depression, the list goes on with conditions that amplify when returning to campus. Greater expectations involving assignments, clubs and other commitments will affect many students directly. This is obviously a conflict that requires thorough observation on the campus’ behalf.

Commenting on the fatigue returning students face, an Observer features article by Hannah Knuth and Nuhamin Wube reflects on how “all of these factors piling up on each other at once is a serious threat to the rate of burnout a student could face.” 

A recent fact sheet titled “Supporting and Protecting the Rights of Students at Risk of Self-Harm in the Era of COVID-19” released by the U.S. Department of Education’s civil rights office and the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, calls for the protection of students suffering from mental ailments.

“Schools and post-secondary institutions have a federal responsibility to protect students with mental health disabilities under civil rights laws such as the Americans With Disabilities Act, and are required to provide those students with equal opportunities to learn free from discrimination,” according to the fact sheet.

Augustana’s office of disability services’s mission is to give students an environment they can thrive in and the necessary accommodations to succeed while complying with the Americans With Disabilities Act. With the pandemic still continuing, providing for students suffering from physical and mental disabilities is more urgent than ever, and Augustana needs to step up if it wants their students to thrive.