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Editorial: Accessibility in a post-pandemic world

As vaccines become much more widespread, we’re all ready to leave the horrors of the pandemic behind us. But there have been some silver linings. Looking forward as an institution, we ought to preserve the culture of understanding and accommodation that we were forced to develop in the face of the pandemic. Progress, albeit under emergency circumstances, can also teach us some important and hopefully more permanent lessons about accessibility, empathy and inclusion. 

The Ivy League may be world-renowned for elite academia, but its campuses have never been the world standard for accessibility and inclusivity. Their colonial-era origins and stifling academic culture don’t help. In the recent past, Brown has worked to improve the accessibility of various historic buildings on campus, but its overall track record on this issue remains rocky — evidenced by the fact that some of the buildings publicly condemned as inaccessible in 2015, such as Sayles Hall, still face similar accessibility barriers today. Academic buildings such as Kassar House and Robinson Hall have significant access barriers similar to, if not worse than Sayles Hall. A student without a disability may take access to drop-in office hours for granted; a student with a disability has to opt for an inevitably subpar alternative if that same office is not accessible to them. If Brown’s structures are inaccessible, so, too, are the professors and academic resources within them. 

Meanwhile, though Brown worked in 2017 to drastically reduce CAPS wait times from two weeks to two days, the Ivy League as a whole rates incredibly poorly with respect to mental health support. And policies such as forced medical leave oftentimes discriminate on the basis of disability. Brown fares better than many of its peer schools, but the institution was still given a D in a comprehensive study by The Ruderman Family Foundation

Brown’s social environment, and the academic elitism embedded within it, is arguably just as inaccessible. A great deal of the dorms — the central social spaces of campus — remain inaccessible. In other words, Brown ensures disabled students accessible housing but doesn’t promise they’ll be able to attend a single social gathering. Students who have not had to face accessibility barriers in their daily lives can naturally be oblivious to the barriers built into our social and physical landscapes. And the dangerously competitive cultures of academic elitism and “productivity as worth” can implicitly delegitimize the experiences of students struggling with mental illness or any other chronic health issue. 

The pandemic — and attending school during it — has certainly perpetuated and even magnified many of these concerns. We do not mean to suggest it has not. But a shift towards a more flexible and virtual world has also greatly benefited many individuals with disabilities and chronic health issues. 

Across the globe, the pandemic has forced us to socialize and connect in more creative ways. Birthday parties, family holiday gatherings and hangouts with friends started to be held on Zoom as social distancing measures took hold last spring. For many, this translated into a scaling-back of social interaction. But for some, as one New York Times article published last summer pointed out, the shift to online gatherings meant more possibilities for socializing and gathering, not less. People with conditions that limit their access to certain physical spaces have since increasingly been able to participate in social life. 

The pandemic has also drastically altered our conceptions of what school and work look like. No longer are students or employees limited by location in order to participate — classes can be taken from the Main Green, and meetings can be attended from opposite coasts. Some employers are even making the change permanent. These shifts have been particularly beneficial to those with disabilities. Closed captioning in recorded lectures and a dramatic reduction in the need to access the built environment have helped to level the playing field. The option to turn off cameras during lectures or watch them later has given students facing mental health difficulties or chronic illnesses greater flexibility in deciding how and when to engage with their courses.

These changes aren’t just limited to location. There has been a societal shift in attitude and empathy as we collectively weather the negative physical and psychological effects of the pandemic. We certainly recognize that not everyone has been considerate of the toll this pandemic has taken — physically, mentally, financially — on students. Many professors are still assigning taxing and ostensibly unempathetic workloads. Students have expressed the feeling that the administration is not responsive enough to student concerns. But broadly speaking, we’ve witnessed an increased cultural push for awareness and empathy during a time in which scores of people are navigating personal crises. Students have been more candid with their peers about emotional well-being, and a number of professors have acknowledged the toll of the pandemic by modifying their syllabi in response. 

We had to learn these lessons under grave conditions, but we would be remiss not to carry them into a post-pandemic future.

For one, our educational experience should no longer be confined to the classroom. Students with disabilities have long advocated for the ability to participate in class even when they are unable to do so in person. Remote learning has now made this possible, and the flexibility afforded by it should be maintained in some form moving forward. Additionally, the increased access to digital resources we see today, whether lecture capture or virtual office hours, would benefit all students, even after a return to in-person learning. 

In light of the pandemic, our campus community has also expanded what it means to connect with others. For some students with disabilities, the Brown community is, perhaps paradoxically, more accessible than ever before. Moving forward, we should not only consider the prospect of continuing virtual activities but also be more mindful of the in-person ones. Who are we including, and who are we leaving out? We must ask ourselves whether the physical spaces on campus are truly accessible, and if they are not, we must be a part of making that change. 

We must also ask ourselves how the culture of this campus and its classrooms supports and includes individuals struggling with mental illness — not just when the pandemic demands it of us. Empathy may come easier in “unprecedented” times. But the truth is, the struggles of students, whether mental or physical, should be treated just as seriously in normal times. Students should be heard and trusted when they reach out to professors or administrators asking for flexibility and grace. A global health crisis should not be a prerequisite for human decency. Students’ well-being must always be prioritized, even when their struggles are not as immediately visible or universal as the pandemic has made many of our present struggles. 

This crisis has forced upon us a greater cultural emphasis on understanding; it would be shameful to neglect it as the pandemic recedes. It’s in the interest of all students that we strive towards inclusion in both academic and social environments. Such changes are long overdue. If we can increase accessibility and empathy during a pandemic, we can ― and should ― continue doing so in normal times. 

Editorials are written by The Herald’s editorial page board. This editorial was written by its editor and assistant editor, Krista Stapleford ’21 and Johnny Ren ’23, and members Olivia Burdette ’22, Devan Paul ’24 and Kate Waisel ’24.  


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