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Disabled College Students Deserve Better

COVID-19 changed our everyday lives in the blink of an eye. I went from college midterms and planning for a summer abroad to being rushed home for an extended spring break without any idea what the rest of my semester would entail. Professors brainstormed with students how they could possibly teach online and still give us the education we deserved. Students shared excited but anxious smiles as we waved goodbye to our roommates for what we thought would be a brief break. I ran across campus to be wrapped in the tightest hug without even thinking this would be my last hug from a college friend for the next year. Students relished this opportunity to sleep, but we never realized that we would not be waking up from the nightmare of COVID-19 anytime soon.

I returned home in a bubble of constant anxiety. As a disabled person with a compromised immune system, I was genuinely terrified. There were months as a kid where I couldn’t function because I got the flu. If I was that sick then, I had no idea how or if I can survive COVID-19. Even if I survived, how was I supposed to complete college classes while being so sick? My family quickly shut down any in-person interactions with friends and extended family in an attempt to keep me safe. However, I know that not everybody took these necessary measures.

As we transitioned into online classes, my anxiety exponentially increased under the stress of my college workload. Professors tried to ease our loneliness by inviting students to share how they were coping with our ever-changing reality. When my peers explained how they were meeting friends outside or not paying much mind to the pandemic, I realized I would be living a drastically different life from them solely due to my disability. I won’t say I was shocked because I’ve lived this experience many times before, but I will say that I felt even more isolated. Unlike my peers, I would not even have a glimpse of my normal life for the next year because I am immuno-compromised. Professors, friends, and even the media cautioned us that our mental health was so important, and we had to maintain some quality of life. However, my quality of life is extremely dependent on my health, and there was no way I could risk it. This moment was when I began my year-long battle, not with COVID-19, but with the choices of society, political leaders, and my college.

I decided to live at home and continue with remote learning for my fall and spring semesters. This was a heavy choice and the weight of it was made worse by the abundance of required documentation my college needed to approve my request. Could my college force me to come back to campus even if it was detrimental to my health? I’m extremely grateful I never had to find out the answer to this question.

Zooming into class has some advantages: I don’t have to wake up as early, and I don’t have to wear a mask all day. However, that’s about the extent of the benefits of remote learning. My peers file into the classroom as I click to launch the meeting. They chat excitedly before class, finally seeing each other in person again. I sit on the other side of the screen and strain to hear. As my peers interact, I watch, knowing that I am miles away from campus and miles away from ever having this opportunity again.

When I served as a peer mentor for a freshman class in the fall, I realized that while their semester was not normal, they were experiencing many of the aspects of college I am missing every day. I watched as new friendships formed and grew strong during this stressful time. Classmates would sit under the maple trees as they talked instead of working on homework. They ran across campus laughing as they attempted to escape the freezing winter air. They hung Christmas lights in every single corner of their dorm room until you could see them from outside. They counted down the days until break on their shared whiteboard and smiled brightly every time they crossed off a day. They vented about their hard days and found comfort in the empathetic words of their roommate. This used to be my college experience. If I had known that I would never have those moments for the next year, I would have laughed more, hung even more lights, and hugged so much harder. While I am stuck at home, I know there are students from my college still creating those unforgettable memories. This knowledge makes my isolation so much harder to bear.

While remote learning is far from perfect, it has not been my biggest obstacle this school year. Every time students go to bars or completely ignore the pandemic, I realize that they prioritize the college experience over the health of everyone else. Every time the college eases restrictions, I know that I can’t risk returning to campus. Every time political leaders emphasize that COVID-19 is only harmful to vulnerable populations, I can so clearly see the ableism rampant throughout society.

COVID-19 has stolen so much from all of us. For me, I’ve missed out on an entire year with college friends in what is supposed to be the best experience of my life. However, COVID-19 has also wholly eradicated any security I believed I had with my health. I’m relegated to my house while other society members feel free to continue with their everyday activities. I will remain isolated away from my college community until I qualify for a vaccine. Only then will I regain some aspects of my normal life. But I will take with me the lesson that I must be the greatest advocate for my own health when the institutions supposed to protect the vulnerable continuously fail. My life and the lives of the disability community should mean more than society’s attempts to grasp the coattails of normalcy in a world that will not be returning to normal for quite some time.

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