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Disabled Students Worry About Return to In-Person Learning

“I’m already stocking up on travel-size disinfectant wipes for my desks, small hand sanitizers, and extra masks,” says Trieshmann. “I plan to double mask, only eat and drink outside, and distance myself as much as possible from other people. Many disabled people have lived in a constant state of fear since the beginning of the pandemic. It’s indescribably painful to watch nondisabled people prioritize their social lives over the health and safety of their communities.” 

New York University did not respond to Teen Vogue’s request for comment.

Despite the health and flexibility-related benefits of remote learning, taking classes on Zoom can have social drawbacks for some students, as it’s not as easy to chat with friends in the hall or cafeteria when fully online. But Melissa Shang, a recent graduate of Newton South High School in Massachusetts, says she never had those opportunities to begin with: She was born with Charcot-Marie-Tooth, a degenerative nerve disease that causes the muscles in her arms and legs to atrophy over time and can affect breathing, so many on-campus activities her peers participated in pre-pandemic felt off limits. She couldn’t eat lunch in the halls, for example, because she needed a steady table to set her tray on; while her friends often did homework in the yard after school, she couldn’t sit comfortably on curbs or hills. “More often than not,” says Shang, “I felt like an outsider in my own high school.” 

But things changed last year. “I could suddenly participate in group activities that were previously inaccessible,” Shang tells Teen Vogue via email. “Hallway lunches became Zoom lunches and outdoor study sessions became Zoom study sessions. Not only was I able to more easily socialize with my friends, but from Zoom chats and Instagram DMs, I found myself making new ones who I had never previously been in the same inaccessible spaces as.”

Though remote learning has made school more accessible for many students with physical disabilities, some neurodivergent students, people with learning disabilities and those who are deaf or hard of hearing, may feel left out. Many have complained that Zoom’s lack of automatic captioning and sign language interpreters have left out deaf and hard of hearing students during remote classes. (In February, Zoom announced it would make live transcriptions of meetings available by fall 2021, and the company is offering automatic closed captioning to meeting hosts in the interim upon request.)

Carley Campbell, a neurodivergent student at Montclair State University, says the switch to remote learning was very difficult for them. “I’m the kind of person who thrives best in a classroom environment, where I have no real distractions and can focus on taking rigorous notes,” Campbell explains. “With remote learning, I feel less and less attached to the materials and am far more likely to indulge in activities like playing video games or cleaning my dorm room rather than paying attention to the subject material. I realized that remote learning was not beneficial for me and my grades suffered. Zoom felt less like a tool to communicate and more like an obligation.”

Ultimately, disabled students just want the same chance as their peers to have a safe and healthy school year. “I’m so scared that we’ll go back to the unaccommodating era of ‘come in or catch up’ mentality and capitalist-style productivity quotas,” says Greenstein. “The world is moving on far too quickly from a pandemic that still kills thousands of people every single day. I wish people understood that disabled students need compassion. We are humans, our lives matter, we are people, and we don’t deserve to be left behind.”

Want more from Teen Vogue? Check this out: Recorded Lectures Should Remain the Norm After the COVID Pandemic

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