When Daniel Goldberg took his final exams last December, he was wearing little more than a baby blue hospital gown with an intravenous line snaking out of his arm.
Last year, Mr. Goldberg, a 24-year-old law student at Arizona State University, switched between taking classes and consulting with his doctors – sometimes from his hospital bed.
Prior to the pandemic, Mr Goldberg, who has a painful, inflammatory bowel disease, missed classes when he needed medical attention. But in his final academic year, he didn’t miss a single class and said it made him a better student.
“It helped me realize like, ‘Wait, why can’t I get these shelters all the time?'” He said. “I should be able to participate through Zoom if necessary.”
Mr Goldberg, whose condition also makes him immunocompromised and more susceptible to the coronavirus, asked for online accommodation as classes return in person this fall – a request the university recently approved.
Although many college students struggled with distance learning over the past year, some with disabilities found it a lifeline. As the fall semester approaches, these students are pushing for more distant accommodation even as face-to-face tuition resumes.
In fact, long before the pandemic, many students with disabilities had requested such accommodations, often with little success. However, the past year has made distance learning seem more feasible. While some colleges have opposed distance learning as accommodation, others say they are considering it.
“The argument in the past before Covid was, ‘Of course, an online course is fundamentally different from a classroom course,'” said Arlene Kanter, an expert on disability rights at Syracuse University College of Law. “Well, Covid changed all that.”
Colleges and universities are generally required to provide “adequate” accommodation or remodeling for qualified students with disabilities – as long as these changes do not “fundamentally change” the nature of the program or place other unreasonable burdens on institutions.
These terms have always been open to interpretation and debate. But since many colleges didn’t offer discounts on distance learning last year, it might be harder for them to argue that it is fundamentally different or inferior to in-person tuition.
“It may be a little difficult for school officials to later claim that going online would mean a serious deterioration in the educational environment,” said Adam M. Samaha, constitutional and disability law expert at New York University’s School of Law. “If education is sufficient, a student might say, ‘Why not extend the same principle to a person who has physical difficulty commuting to the classroom?'”
Cameron Lynch believes colleges were not built for students like her. To get to class at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, Ms. Lynch, an aspiring second grader with muscular dystrophy, said she had to negotiate uneven brick paths. And some of the old campus buildings don’t have accessible facilities like elevators or ramps.
“The way to class is always a bit difficult regardless of Covid, so it’s nice to be online,” said Ms. Lynch.
Ms. Lynch, who also has celiac disease and diabetes, is immunocompromised. And despite being vaccinated, she is afraid of the coronavirus and has spent much of the past year in isolation.
When her college returned to offering face-to-face courses last year, she found that some of the courses she had to take for her double degree in Sociology and Government were no longer offered online. She brought her concern to the college’s disability service. She refused to allow her to attend the required courses from a distance.
“They just told me to take an extra semester,” Ms. Lynch said.
Ms. Lynch, who took online classes during the summer to catch up, said she was “stressed” about the fall semester and unsure whether she could take all the online classes she needed.
Suzanne Clavet, a spokeswoman for William & Mary, declined to comment on Ms. Lynch’s case, saying the college was considering online learning on a case-by-case basis as a possible solution. In an email she said: “In some cases correspondence courses are not possible if that would result in a fundamental change in the course.”
Some faculty members also appeal to remote accommodations. Cornell University was turned down by faculty members when it announced that it would not approve “requests” for distance learning for reasons such as accommodating the disabled.
Two days later, the university announced that for those unable to study or teach in person this fall, “short-term or partial distance learning” might be considered. But “not many classes” would qualify for distance learning even if they were taught remotely last year, said Michael I. Kotlikoff, Cornell’s provost.
Ms. Lynch said that at Chronic and Iconic, an informal online support group she founded for immunocompromised college students, students could “scold people who got it” if they felt otherwise isolated and unsupported on campus would.
Students hardly have any options. “I can’t complain because it’s too expensive and I didn’t want to cause problems in my school,” said Ms. Lynch.
Just knowing that online courses are an option can help students with disabilities by reassuring them that there is a safety net in place.
Last semester, Sophia Martino, a senior at the University of Missouri who suffers from spinal muscular atrophy and uses a wheelchair, opted for two personal laboratory courses. In May, despite being vaccinated, she contracted Covid-19.
Even after this tough year, she plans to take lessons in person this fall. But knowing that the university has already given permission for a handful of students to attend classes remotely this year, she says, makes her feel better about attending in-person classes as there is accommodation when she needs it.
“The idea of distance learning as shelter is something that has been newer since the pandemic,” said Ashley Brickley, director of the university’s disability center.
In fact, online courses are not a panacea, as Cory Lewis, a biology student at Georgia Military College, noted last year. Mr. Lewis has sickle cell anemia which can cause fatigue, chronic pain and organ damage, making him particularly susceptible to infectious diseases. He was hospitalized four times last year, including one for kidney failure, and spent months in persistent pain.
If it had been a normal academic year, he might have had to drop out, he said. Instead, he could remain enrolled. An enterprising biology professor even sent home lab kits packed with everything he needed to conduct a variety of hands-on experiments.
But Mr. Lewis was struggling to focus on his other correspondence courses and his grades were falling, he said. So he plans to study in person again this fall, despite worries about his health.
“I just learn a lot better when I actually stand in front of the teacher,” said Mr Lewis, who is fully vaccinated but some of his classmates said that was not the case. “But since I know that my health could be endangered with the Delta variant, I don’t know what will happen to the school now.”
He is grateful that he had the flexibility of distance learning. For her part, Ms. Martino would like to be able to participate remotely long after the pandemic has ended – perhaps on days when her muscles are sore and it is difficult to get out of bed, or when the weather is bad and it is difficult , in her wheelchair to class.
“Maybe in the future they would think about doing it like a hybrid course that would be nice if you had to take it online,” she said.
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