Life on a socially-distanced campus has had its ups and downs for disabled students at Cornell, reducing the need to travel to physically inaccessible spaces while introducing new problems for those with audio or visual disabilities.
Expanded virtual opportunities have improved accessibility of school and work for some disabled students, while creating new challenges including increased risk of illness and the need for transcription services.
“The pandemic is affecting everyone differently, including members of the disabled community,” wrote Zebadiah Hall, director of Cornell Student Disability Services, in an email to The Sun. “Many of the barriers that limited access to learning before the pandemic have been heightened by it.”
According to Hall, exposure to the illness is a severe concern for certain students, as their underlying health conditions put them at an increased risk for severe symptoms.
Conan Gillis ’21 said that SDS has been extremely helpful in dealing with everybody’s unique situations. Because of Gillis’s disability, he requires consistent access to nursing care, which SDS has helped facilitate.
“SDS has helped me have nurses be allowed to come into the building, which requires a lot of work during a pandemic,” he said.
While Gillis did not encounter difficulty accessing SDS services for routine appointments and other administrative needs, this has not been the case for all students, according to Raquel Zohar ’23, Students With Disabilities Representative at Large of the Student Assembly.
“Others have expressed that they struggle more than in the past to rectify minor issues they encounter that could have previously been addressed by walking into SDS and asking a question,” Zohar wrote.
One of the most common functions of disability services this semester has been providing students with telecommunication assistance through live transcripts.
“When used, Live Transcript has been noted as very helpful for many students,” Zohar wrote. “Virtual instruction and telecommuting to class has also been noted by a handful of students with physical disabilities as easier because they can now take class from any remote location they are stationed at this (and last) semester.”
Challenges with overall campus life, however, have remained relatively similar to past years.
“Students still struggle to register [university] accommodations as the process may be confusing,” Zohar wrote. Also, many students continue to wait for accessibility improvements to multiple campus buildings such as Willard Straight that have been difficult to navigate for disabled students.
Zohar is optimistic that in the future, students will likely see significant improvement in quality of disability services as the campus transitions back to a normal environment. She wrote that SDS will resume full operations if the campus transitions back to in-person operations and that staff are eager to assist students.
Hall expressed similar sentiments, saying that SDS will continue to partner with students to address factors barring students from equal access and opportunity, advocating a universal design approach to ensure all students can participate fully in Cornell life.
In the future, Gillis and Zohar both hope that lessons learned during the pandemic can help professors and employers introduce remote work as a long term accommodation for those who need it.
According to Gillis, the shift to virtual courses has had a significant impact on potential opportunities for students with disabilities. This past summer Gillis participated in a mathematics research program in Hungary, an opportunity that would not have been available to him in a normal environment due to travel restrictions with his disability.
According to Gillis, virtual work can help make future opportunities more accessible, and Zohar agrees.
“Our campus’s shift to virtual instruction this year has taught us that telecommuting and hosting Zoom lectures in conjunction with in-person class is a very reasonable ask,” Zohar wrote. “By extension, [it is a] a reasonable accommodation for students on campus and even individuals with disabilities in the workforce beyond Cornell.”