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Accessibility for everyone: COVID-19 and the power of moral imagination

The University’s response to COVID-19 exposes the inaccessibility of the Ivory Tower.

When I first started university, as a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed Arts student back in 2016, I did so with hopes that my tertiary education would be a far more accessible experience than my high school one had been. Gone were the stringencies of the HSC, with its archaic Special Provisions system and rigid assessment methods that hadn’t changed since the 1950s. I imagined university to be a disabled student’s utopia: the freedom to choose my own courses (favouring those without exams, of course!), design my own timetable, and adequate resources to support my learning needs. And yet, when I arrived on campus, I soon found that academic life for disabled students was not as rosy as I had been led to believe by the shiny pamphlets distributed by my school’s career counsellor.

What I discovered over the course of my four years at the University of Sydney was a hodgepodge of contradictory policies and procedures concerning accessible education. There were lecturers who refused to record lectures out of fear that their intellectual property would be stolen, course convenors who believed that uploading class materials to Canvas would encourage laziness amongst the cohort, and tutors who enforced mandatory attendance with an iron fist and very little clemency for those too ill or too busy to attend.

For the most part, I bore the brunt of these ableist policies alone, learning the precise words to include within a Special Considerations application so that your chronic illness doesn’t cost you a cool 25% of your grade when you happen to submit that English essay a few days late, mastering the art of sounding forceful – but not too forceful – when you request that your Monday morning, 8am psychology lecture is recorded, and occasionally cutting your losses and copping that Absent Fail because showing up to class when your debilitating social anxiety flares up just isn’t worth the suffering it would entail. Of course, Disability Services exists to support disabled students in navigating this woefully inaccessible system. But what happens when everyone runs the risk of falling ill? How are our educational institutions meant to cope with widespread disease and panic, when they can’t even cater to students with on-going, well-documented medical conditions?

Such is the position we find ourselves in with the recent outbreak of COVID-19. As the University scrambles to find online solutions to the novel challenges wrought by the coronavirus, the cracks in its institutional design become glaringly obvious. While we might laugh at the lag times on Zoom classrooms and the absurd alternatives to assessments that some academics have proposed, I believe that this crisis exposes something far more pernicious about the Ivory Tower: that it was never built to cater to the most vulnerable amongst us. No longer is accessibility a fringe concern for a small number of students, but an urgent principle that we must enact if we wish to survive the coming months with minimal interruptions to our education.

I believe that the coronavirus pandemic presents us with an opportunity to exercise our moral imaginations — to cultivate empathy for those of us who do not share the privileges of good health and economic stability. To demand that our universities do better in redesigning their institutional policies, rather than simply slapping a band-aid on a wound that has been weeping for decades. And to envision what a truly just educational experience — one that caters to all students — looks like and to begin to fight for it. After all, our lives might just depend on it.

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