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How This School Year Might Leave Behind Disabled Students

“Did you know that your daughter, Claire, has an outstanding number of absences?” 

This greeting felt as common as a “Hi, how are you?” to my mother, who would receive these calls from the front office of my high school on a semi-regular basis.

They weren’t wrong to say it; I missed 25% of the total days of high school, leaving my teachers and peers joking that the surprise was if I did show up. However, I was not spending my days off in a Ferris Bueller’s Day Off fantasia. The origins of my truancy—as my mother would patiently and continuously explain—were the product of multiple chronic illnesses, resulting in sporadic hospital stays, a rotating cast of surgeons and surgeries, and monthly 9 hour days in the HEM/ONC infusion center of my local children’s hospital. 

Students with disabilities were always forced to find ways to “make it work.” 

My disability greatly informed my high school experience; I learned to be an expert at teaching myself the material I missed from the textbook, padding any idiosyncrasies with Khan Academy videos and notes solicited from friends.

However comfortable I grew, though, one thing remained abundantly clear: The school system wasn’t built for me or people like me, not when my location at any given time was determined by the whims of my heart (literally, not poetically) and my immune system.

That is, until COVID. 

COVID accommodations provided a new frontier of inclusion. 

For me and so many other people living with disabilities, COVID pulled the accommodations we had (subconsciously?) longed for into the mainstream, something which Disability Pride Month granted much opportunity to reflect upon. 

Now, being in the hospital for a routine treatment –or just in too much pain to go in person– didn’t mean missing class; we possessed the same opportunity as everyone else to ask questions and learn fully. Any activities or work expected of us could be done from home, keeping us nearer to the medical equipment and comfort which we had previously sacrificed for schooling, or vise-versa. The ability to be present without being in person was an invaluable development. 

These benefits also extended to those with mental illness. 

This progress wasn’t just limited to physical challenges, either. Natalie Goldberg (she/her), a 19 year old copywriter at JUV explains that, 

“Online learning was really helpful for dealing with my anxiety because I was able to turn off my camera and do some grounding exercises and then return to class when I felt ready. Having Zoom classes allowed me to slip in and out of class unnoticed to do what I needed to do and be more present in my learning.” 

Across the board, one thing is clear: these accommodations matter. Furthermore, in a world where, according to the CDC, more than 50% of US adults have at least 1 chronic condition (and Gen Z has the worst mental health of any generation yet), it’s hard to understand why these changes shouldn’t stay in the mainstream. 

Despite this, new CDC guidance urges schools to reopen in the fall even if they can’t fully comply with suggestions for COVID safety. 

Not only will this strip students with disabilities of the accommodations which aided them so greatly in the past year, but also could force students whose conditions make them more susceptible to the virus to continue to study from home completely even as their peers return, creating challenges socially and academically. 

Places are reopening, but it’s important to keep accessibility in mind. 

Personally, I hope to see a world where teachers and professors continue to use the infrastructure that COVID provided. Continuing to record lectures and providing them online is a strong start, maintaining remote options for participation and relationship building is even better. When naysayers shout concerns of truancy, the refutation is simple: creating accessibility and inclusion for students with disabilities is simply more important than preventing a few skipped classes by those with the luxury of choice. 

Keeping everything online likely isn’t the solution, but disregarding community members with disabilities in decisions surrounding reopening isn’t either. 

The best thing schools and workplaces can do? Adapt. We’ve done it for long enough – now it’s your turn. 

Claire Fennell is a Senior Partner at JUV. She can most often be found reading in Central Park, listening to Elton John, or spending way too much money on iced oat lattes. Follow her on Instagram @clairemfennell!