While I’m not going to promise that this will be my last COVID-related post, I do promise that I will change the subject after this week. I know it’s been a lot for everybody both inside and outside of the disability community to hear about constantly, but it’s important that we don’t forget that people with disabilities have some unique issues that we are dealing with during this pandemic.
When I was thinking about going to law school, initially I figured it would probably be my best option to try to find an online program. I knew I was going to have issues finding a consistent caregiver who was able to drive me to school every day and I know that I learn best in an environment where I am the most comfortable. What are the odds, I thought, that a law school would not adapt to the needs of people who wanted to become lawyers but could not manage to physically get to school every day?
Well, apparently I had no idea what I was talking about because as soon as I started looking seriously at schools, I found exactly zero law schools that offered online-only classes. Once I actually started school, I learned that the American Bar Association has certain attendance requirements for law schools and under normal circumstances (pre-COVID), they generally do not allow for online instruction, especially of first-year courses.
Once COVID hit, that, like so many other things in our lives, completely changed. Suddenly, schools figured out a way to take attendance for online classes so as to still meet the ABA attendance requirements. Now, I am not going to pretend like this is the preferred option for schools or that it could have been reasonably foreseen that we would be dealing with a global pandemic of this scale and magnitude. All schools, both law and non-law centered, were faced with the difficult decision of whether to adapt to online learning or face holding students back a year and or preventing them from completing graduation requirements on time. So of course they adapted because it was prudent of them to do so.
Now, I am very lucky that I have been relatively healthy since I started school. I have not had to miss substantial amounts of classes, but that is an exception for me, not the rule. Growing up, I was in the hospital at least once a year with pneumonia, and I even did homebound education during the worst of the flu season to limit my exposure to germs. Even still, I always got sick. I’m not sure why that pattern changed and I eventually stopped getting so sick, but I’m grateful that it happened. Unfortunately, if my ever-changing health status once again changes back to the way it used to be and I start getting sick like that again, I will be faced with the same predicament as many of my friends who are in law school: to continue trying to go to school and face discipline for missing too many classes or to quit altogether.
Although disability services can be helpful in this regard (and I love the disability services people at my school) the problem is bigger than individual schools. In law school, as I’ve mentioned, the American Bar Association has certain requirements attendance. This means that any accommodation that would require the long-term use of online learning is prohibitively difficult to receive. According to some of my friends, when attempting to access this kind of accommodation, you are straightforwardly told no.
So you can imagine the kind of frustration we are feeling now that everyone else’s health is being put first.
Please don’t get me wrong. I know the coronavirus is extremely dangerous and I will not compare it to the flu because the two illnesses are vastly different. What I will point out though is that the flu kills a disproportionate number of people with underlying health conditions and other disabilities. Where is the concern for their health when flu season happens every single year? Can you imagine how unfair it would seem if you were told when the initial wave of coronavirus happened and schools were going online that and simply was not possible for online instruction to occur for you? That because of the pandemic, you would not be allowed to graduate or move on to the next grade level in school?
What this leaves many of us with is the distinct impression that the ongoing health struggles of many people with disabilities and the unique danger that common illnesses pose to people with underlying health conditions are not taken seriously. If the ABA and decision-making entities for other types of schools were to prioritize the lives of people with disabilities the way they prioritize the lives of everyone else, we would not have an issue.
Even now, with coronavirus numbers rising, Missouri and many other states are still planning on an in-person bar exam, even if a test-taker is high-risk or otherwise uniquely situated to pass on the virus to others. This “no-exceptions” mentality is against the spirit of the ADA and other disability rights laws because it creates strict criteria for who should be employed in certain professions and, in a broader sense, what kinds of accomplishments people with disabilities are allowed to have.
And apart from school, people with disabilities who work are facing similar issues. For many, the ability to work from home can be a reasonable accommodation. However, employers often deny this request outright, usually citing the cost and logistical difficulties of moving in-person work online. I don’t doubt that working from home may sometimes be impossible, but often it is not. It is certainly true that the majority of work has moved online since the pandemic began, so how impossible was it really?
None of this is to say that the implementation of online work and schooling should not have happened. It absolutely should have, and it will hopefully continue being implemented wherever possible and appropriate. As author and disability rights advocate Alice Wong has said, “My hope for coming out of this pandemic is that we don’t return to the status quo. Many don’t realize that “normal” was actually not great for a lot of people.” As one of the people for whom normal was not always great, I hope people like me don’t continue to be overlooked when requesting accommodations that would be granted if the same issues affected everyone else. I don’t wish for other people to be affected by the same limitations that I am, but I do wish for empathy on the part of the people who make decisions about my health.
If you are interested in advocating for online bar exams, write the Supreme Court of your state and tell them. My friends will be putting their lives on the line this summer to take the bar exam and who knows if the coronavirus will be gone by the time I am slated to take the exam next summer. If I am forced to put my health and life at risk in order to take an exam, that won’t even be a choice for me. But I am privileged that I’m able to put off employment and an income until it’s safe for me to do otherwise. Many people are not in that position.