Opinion: A blessing in disguise — COVID-19 response makes possible for this disabled student and perhaps others to return to college

Contributing Writer Bryanna Shaw claims universities’ collective response to the pandemic has provided more access to education.

Illustration+by+Emily+Meilands.

Illustration by Emily Meilands.

Bryanna Shaw, Contributing Writer

It only took a global pandemic to make higher education more accessible for disabled students.

Federal data says only a third of students with disabilities who enroll in a four-year college or university graduate within eight years. At a two-year school, that number drops to 42 percent.

I became physically disabled after graduating from college in 2015. I knew going back to school for my master’s degree would be a challenge, but I thought I could tough it out. I opted against doing a fully online program at another school; I didn’t want to miss out on the “university experience.” 

I had faith, perhaps naively, that I could get through my degree at FAU if I advocated for myself and asked for the necessary accommodations. Halfway through the program, I realized that the requirements of being physically on campus and in my internship were truly impossible for me.

You may be asking yourself how this is possible. Don’t we already have a Student Accessibility Services (SAS) Office? Isn’t this why we have the Americans With Disabilities Act? Aren’t universities required to be accessible? Yes… but mostly, no.

Institutions of higher education are legally required to maintain certain standards of accessibility, like having accessible bathroom stalls and classrooms. There is nothing that mandates them to provide more than bare-minimum accommodations. 

For example, although a university might have a wheelchair ramp to get into a building, they may still enforce strict attendance policies that place an undue burden on students with disabilities or illnesses. 

With a heavy heart, I cut my losses and dropped out in 2019. To be clear, I don’t fault FAU for this. The SAS team was kind and helpful and they did everything they could have; in the end, it just wasn’t enough. The problem is bigger than FAU.

Everything changed when the pandemic hit. Universities, once rigid with their requirements, suddenly found ways to become more flexible. They offered most classes online.

Instructors no longer required students to show up and sit in classrooms, which had been my biggest challenge in the past. I thought, “Hey, I could do that. I can work from my bed. This can work for me.” So, I’m trying again, with a different degree this time. 

For the first time in many years, I have hope that I can successfully pursue my higher education goals.

The pandemic has proven what many disabled and chronically ill students knew all along. We don’t need to physically be in a classroom every day to learn. There are, and always have been, so many more options for us. 

If a student gets sick now and requires an extended absence because of COVID-19 or otherwise, they can finish the class or semester remotely. This kind of flexibility is the key to accessibility. 

Teachers and professors have proven that in-person/online hybrid classes, while not without their own set of challenges, are an option. Self-paced online classes work, too. Disabled people deserve access to higher education.

Although I am EAGERLY awaiting the end of the pandemic, my feelings of hope are equally matched with anxiety. 

Will the Florida Board of Governors require that state universities fully reopen next summer or fall? Will we lose the option to have self-paced, online courses? Will I be expected to be on campus five days a week as a full-time student? Will I have to quit ANOTHER degree program?

I wish I had answers. For now, I’m going to enjoy this opportunity, even if it may be short-lived. My hope is that the world will finally see that accessibility is possible, and prioritize it for all students going forward.

Bryanna Shaw is a contributing writer for the University Press and a student in the English department. She is slated to graduate in Fall 2021.