The return to in-person learning seemingly ignores disabled students and their health, by currently offering them no additional support and making it difficult for them to feel safe returning to campus.
On the 23rd March the University of Auckland announced that students would be returning to in-person learning for all teaching activities, excluding tests and exams. Under the announcement on the University website, it states “Where there are compelling reasons for a particular teaching activity not to be taught in person (e.g., staff with health conditions that make them high risk) alternatives may be approved”. However, there is no mention of what this decision means for students with disabilities and what alternatives would be provided to aid their learning.
Craccum spoke to some disabled students who attend the University, and all were nervous about returning to campus. They have concerns about returning to a potentially packed campus, the noise and health discomfort this may come with, and many noted the public transport commute to be one of the biggest concerns.
Under the ‘disability’s services’ page on the University website, there is no information on additional support during COVID-19, and not even a page to provide help or support during the online learning process despite the majority of learning taking place over the past two years being remote. For those who are unregistered students with disabilities, this makes it difficult for them to access any COVID-19 related resources.
Those who are registered have not been contacted regarding additional support. An undergraduate student at the University, Laura*, told Craccum they feel “somewhat” neglected by this decision and lack of support, noting the University hasn’t reached out to offer additional support. A Master’s student at the University, Caitlin*, said “I don’t think students have been deliberately neglected but returning to normal does raise the issue that we may become blindsided by normality, and are not listening closely enough to the experiences of disabled tauira”.
Hannah Burkin, author of Advanced HE’s qualitative report on the impact of COVID-19 said online that “Experiences documented during the pandemic highlight that a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach simply does not work; you cannot be truly inclusive if you place disabled students on a par with their non-disabled peers in relation to support.”.
However, staff seem to be of the utmost importance when it comes to higher risk people being on campus. Their “‘at risk’ staff returning to campus during COVID-19” page provides guidance to staff regarding who the Ministry of Health deems as high risk, and the guidelines for accommodation processes to allow staff to feel safe on or off campus. It acknowledges that this includes visible and invisible disabilities, as well as mental health conditions. The page states that “staff and their managers are encouraged to have these conversations”, whilst high risk students are being swept under the rug.
The University of Auckland is not alone in not providing information online, with AUT, Massey University, Victoria University of Wellington, University of Otago, and Canterbury University all neglecting the impact of COVID-19 under their ‘disabilities services’ website pages.
Caitlin also told Craccum that “There are some great supports for disabled students, if you are struggling to access them, then do reach out to someone who will listen.” AUSA Advocacy Service provides a confidential form that can be filled out to explain your concerns and to help find potential solutions to issues that the University may not be directly supporting you for.
*At this time the University’s disability service has not responded to the request to comment.
*Students wished to remain anonymous