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What COVID-19 Taught Us About Accessibility

Higher education systems across the globe are facing astounding uncertainty as they move to restructure their spring semesters in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite this uncertainty, the SUNY System has continued to push itself to remain an accessible and equitable institution of learning for all students. Within the SUNY Student Assembly Disability Services Committee, members have both applauded SUNY’s efforts and discussed the broader lessons we can learn through this troubling time about accessibility.

Accessibility impacts everyone.

Many think of accessibility as a term that is only used within the disability services community. However, the past few weeks have taught us that accessibility comes in many forms. Access to technology to learn from home, access to food and shelter in the event of a quarantine, and access to appropriate medical care impact us all. Only through thinking about accessibility holistically can we ensure all SUNY students have what they need to be successful.

More classes can be taught online than we thought.

Historically, options for online classes in higher education have been limited. Some classes supposedly require in person contact, and others hands-on activity. Although we recognize that this may sometimes be the case, the Disability Services Committee urges professors to consider whether their course is truly one that can only be taught in person. Insisting that a class must be taught in person, when there is capability to teach it online can be incredibly limiting for students who can not access the campus physically. Now is the perfect time to test-run those courses that might be successful online, as they are already being taught remotely for the remainder of the semester!

Students should always have the choice to work where they function best.

The Disability Services Committee recognizes that some students thrive when working from home, while other students thrive with in-person instruction. We believe that students should be able to pursue whatever method best suits them without limitations on the courses they can take or the opportunities they can be presented with. Right now, we see many campuses going out of their way to provide remote opportunities for engagement with students. The Disability Services Committee urges student services offices to continue this trend when the COVID-19 pandemic ceases. Many students with chronic illness may not be able to leave their homes at various points throughout the year, and they should still have access to the same services that other students receive. This pandemic has proven that opportunities for leadership and engagement should not be limited based on a student’s ability to be physically present on campus.

Accessibility advocacy is FAR from finished.

Although we have made great strides in disability services, there is still a lot of work to be done. The Disability Services Committee is proud to continue advocating for accessibility in higher education, and we want you to join us! This month we are going to be launching SUNY Students for Accessibility. This is a student group working to unite the SUNY campuses, raise awareness about disability services, and advocate for students with disabilities throughout the SUNY system. To get involved with the work that we do, email or attend our committee meetings on Sunday nights!

Written by Emma Vanderwerken, Disability Services Chair, SUNY Polytechnic

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