“They’ve done this without consulting students with disabilities.”
As the University of Ottawa prepares for the start of another academic year, some students have expressed concerns regarding the decision to return to a majority of in-person courses.
While the reduction in online options might sound promising for those who have missed in-person activities, students with health conditions and disabilities have expressed that this is a step back when it comes to having an accommodating campus.
There are numerous health conditions, syndromes, and disabilities that place certain populations at a higher risk of exposure, infection, and/or severe outcomes from COVID-19. This includes anyone with a chronic health condition, such as asthma, heart disease or high blood pressure, or who is considered immunocompromised, for reasons including an underlying condition or immunosuppressive medications.
In addition to personal health risks, in-person classes present as a risk for the many students who live with or care for others who are considered high-risk individuals. Caretakers, family members and guardians are also severely limited by the risks imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The general recommendation for those who are considered high-risk individuals is to avoid or severely limit any time spent in high-risk areas, such as settings that are crowded or poorly ventilated.
For these such members of the U of O community, ignoring those recommendations could have deadly repercussions.
Willow Robinson has been the coordinator at the Centre for Students with Disabilities since February 2019. Her job is contingent on her being a student at the University of Ottawa, and on her being enrolled in at least one course during regular semesters.
“If I leave my house right now, I will die. It’s not ‘oh, you might catch it, you will probably survive,’ or ‘you might survive, you might not,’” said Robinson. “It’s either I choose to stay home, and I lose my job and my education, because my job is tied to being a student, … or I go to school, get my education, and then if I live long enough to make it to graduation, I might possibly live a little bit longer to get a job.”
Robinson isn’t the only student who feels they are being made to choose between their health and their job. Since the University announced the return to majority in-person courses back in April, Robinson has had a number of on-campus student-workers with disabilities reach out with concerns about situations eerily similar to her own.
“So if they’re no longer a student … not only can they not continue to study and get their degree, but they also are out of a job now. So how are they supposed to pay rent?”
The case of one student in particular highlights how immensely stressful the forced return to in-person classes has been for individuals requiring accommodations.
“[The student] said [they had] one course left until graduation … When they looked into it, there was no equivalency,” explained Robinson. “The professor said that they’re in-person. [The student] spent two hours on the phone with me crying as they dropped out of university.”
For each of the over 83 students Robinson has been working with over the last four months, there have been individual tickets of communication opened between them and their faculties. Depending on their program and area of study, students have received mixed responses.
While some faculties have been open and appear to be “genuinely trying to help,” others have been far less willing to listen.
Robinson explains that from what she’s seen, the faculties of engineering and social sciences have been the least receptive. Her own case with the faculty of social sciences has gone completely unanswered.
Since sending her original email on April 22, she has sent four follow-up emails — one for each month. “If you’re in FSS, the undergrad office will not respond to you. Those are the people who have not responded to me.”
“It’s extremely discriminatory … If I thought that I had the time and energy — as well as dealing with all of these student cases that I’m currently dealing with — I would bring a human rights case against the University of Ottawa for this,” said Robinson.
As both a University of Ottawa student and an advocate for people with disabilities, Carly Fox offers a unique perspective on the return to in-person courses. Outside of the University, Fox also works as a disability researcher and communications officer for the National Educational Association of Disabled Students (NEADS).
“It’s really important to think about hybrid as an accommodation, and when we don’t offer accommodations, disabled students are disproportionately likely to drop out of school,” explained Fox.
“And so, when we don’t offer this, it not only prevents us from accessing education, it sends a very clear message that we’re not included and we are not accepted, and that, even though we paid the same amount in tuition as every other student, we are not getting anywhere near the same quality of experience.”
“We’ve spent so much money investing in hybrid learning. We bought the cameras for the classrooms, we trained professors on how to use them … we spent a lot of time, a lot of money and a lot of energy to just throw it away — throw 80% of our success and progression at accommodations away.”
The University of Ottawa has stated that no more than 10-20 per cent of Fall 2022 courses will be offered in hybrid and online learning formats.
Many, including both Robinson and Fox, saw the introduction of hybrid learning options as a win for accommodations and accessibility on-campus. To have them take it away now has left them, and many others, feeling undervalued and frustrated.
Currently in Ottawa, there are an estimated 635 active cases of COVID-19 and roughly 33 ongoing outbreaks across institutional settings. Some students have expressed concerns regarding not only the fact that students are being asked to return to in-person learning, but that they will be doing so without any mask mandates or vaccine requirements.
“Additionally, there’s only like a five-day recommended isolation period,” said Fox. “And when we don’t offer hybrid options, what do you think is going to happen? Sick students are going to show up, and then it’s going to spread everywhere, and then everyone’s gonna get sick.”
Lauren McDermaid, a fourth-year student in civil engineering and computing technology, currently sits on the University of Ottawa’s Senate as the undergraduate student representative from the faculty of engineering. As a student with a disability, she has been asking for accommodations since long before the initial transition online, only for the pandemic to later force universities to bring them forth.
“I am a disabled student and have requested recorded lectures as an accommodation prior to the pandemic. This request was denied because it was said to be not feasible due to the lack of infrastructure. The pandemic has proved otherwise,” explained McDermaid in a statement to the Fulcrum. “The University can no longer claim they do not have the infrastructure or that staff and professors are not trained in online learning technologies.”
“Every semester of the pandemic, I repeatedly requested my need for recorded lectures be formalized, and every semester, I was denied until Winter 2022. Students received multiple emails throughout the pandemic threatening to return to in-person learning,” she said. “That is how I received every single email: as a threat to the removal of the inclusivity I had been denied until the entire population required it.”
Until the majority of the U of O’s courses went online in early 2020, online classes and hybrid formats were not offered as an accommodation option. While audio transcription is listed as one of the services offered by the Academic Accommodations Services, fully recorded lectures — with visual elements — are not.
“As devastating as the pandemic has been and continues to be, it has advanced and proved the world can rapidly adapt and provide the inclusivity of online learning that many disabled people have needed for so long,” said McDermaid.
“Unfortunately, despite finally receiving this inclusivity, those who have needed them have heard professors incessantly stating their desire and hopes to return to in-person learning. I found this incredibly ignorant, dismissive, and ableist. It was an ableist microaggression repeated throughout the pandemic and profoundly psychologically damaging.”
McDermaid’s sentiment was largely echoed by Fox. “It’s really ableism not at its finest, but at its most clear, it’s clearly discrimination against disabled people. And there’s going to be negative implications for everyone.”
“Ultimately, this university and all universities that have not seized this opportunity for hybrid learning have failed,” said McDermaid. “They failed to create an inclusive environment; further contributing to discriminatory attitudes. They have failed to advance accessible education.”
The University of Ottawa did not provide a comment.