Revisioning Accessibility in Higher Education Post COVID-19

Revisioning Accessibility in Higher Education Post COVID-19

Jessica A. Cannon
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-6684-5934-8.ch002
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One impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and complications from the virus is a significant increase in the number of people with cognitive and physical disabilities. Higher education has been slow to fully engage with accessibility measures, pursuing an on-demand individual accommodation model rather than broader accessibility from the outset. Recent legal decrees reinforce the expectation that broad accessibility is the new standard. Educational institutions can choose to act with deliberate attention to becoming leaders in implementing new accessibility practices and resources. A proactive approach increases the formal and informal educational opportunities for a broader audience of learners, as well as setting an example for how society at large can become more supportive of disabilities. This chapter outlines several ways higher education can adapt and lead this effort.
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It is frightening to be faced with a medical condition or life situation that is unpredictable, uncontrollable, life altering, and life threatening. But that does not make it unnatural. What is natural is to feel the good and the bad that is life. What is not natural is to suppress realities that we all in one form or another will face. (Barragann and Nusbaum, 2017, p. 53)

Eduardo Barragann (2017) speaks here about living with disability, yet his words also reflect the experiences of millions who were infected with the SARS-CoV-2 COVID-19 virus. Two years into the pandemic, early medical research demonstrates that the effects of COVID-19 can be both temporary (weeks) and long-term (months, years, to perhaps permanent) in nature. Infection impacts human physiology as well as cognitive function, and complications increase in frequency and severity with multiple infections by COVID-19 variants. As governments, businesses, and education systems push to ‘return to normal,’ infections continue as the virus mutates. Even if COVID-19 becomes endemic in the future, daily news reports show that many individuals—of all age groups—have temporary or long-term disabilities resulting from COVID-19. Acute and post-acute or “long-Covid” symptoms meet the definition of disability as set forth in the Americans with Disabilities Act (1990): “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities” (U.S. Department of Justice, n.d.). COVID-19 may become the agent of change that compels society to recognize and deliver equal access as a civil right for all people because the virus disables so many. This chapter focuses first on synthesizing the medical literature on COVID-19 symptoms as it impacts education, then explores the problems with the existing accommodations-approach to disability in higher education. In many ways, higher education is already behind in providing broader accessibility instead of one-off individual accommodations (Dolmage, 2017; Bolt, 2017; Kerschbaum, Eisenman, and Jones, 2017), and this chapter closes by proposing several actionable steps to change common structural, cultural, and instructional barriers.

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