Miller: CWRU refuses to allow remote accommodations for disabled students during the pandemic

How many lives is a college degree worth?

Linus Miller, Contributing Writer

“The overwhelming number of deaths, over 75%, occurred in people who had at least four comorbidities. So really, these are people who were unwell to begin with. And yes, really encouraging news.” That’s what Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky had to say about the COVID-19 pandemic last week.

I have six comorbidities.

But Case Western Reserve University doesn’t seem to care any more than Dr. Walensky does about students like me. Five semesters into the pandemic, CWRU is intent on pretending it’s over. The administration sends letters to the student body assuring us that they know everyone expects things to return to normal as soon as possible. But who is everyone? Because clearly, I’m not included in that, and neither are other disabled students. Nor are we included in considerations of how to “provide an equitable experience for our students” or allow them “to attend as many classes as possible.”

Because if we were involved, CWRU wouldn’t be denying disabled students the opportunity to attend classes remotely after the two-week mark. And yet that’s exactly what they’re doing.

Disability Resources is denying almost all undergraduate students’ requests for remote attendance accommodations in the very same semester during which almost the entire school is spending the first two weeks learning online. Their justifications run the whole gamut of excuses, including that if professors had to change their syllabus when the school went remote, “that’s a fundamental alteration”—in which case, where is everyone’s tuition refund for the spring semester of 2020? This question I again found myself asking when Assistant Dean of Disability Resources Eboni Porter said, “it changes the nature of the degree.” Another excuse was that “courses that are highly participatory, what I’ve found so far is that no university has provided a remote option for it for an approval for a disability accommodation”—false. Or, “If you have a question, and the instructor is talking, the instructor is not always going to be able to pay attention to [you] if you’re raising your hand.” Then why are hybrid courses still being offered through the Master of Public Health Program? And how can we guarantee that they’d see our hands in person? Not to mention just how hard it would be to see the raised hand of a dead student. This one is just grasping for straws. But the cherry on top is when Eboni Porter told a student, “In that situation, what I would say to a student is, for the pandemic situation, then take time away…This would be a time that we would say, do not take classes.”

That’s right, folks. Eboni Porter told students that if the pandemic endangers them, they should leave CWRU. Not only is this an extremely unethical thing to be telling students, but it’s also plainly illegal.

As an institution of postsecondary education, CWRU is subject to federal law. It is required by Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and by Title 34 of the Code of Federal Regulations to provide reasonable accommodations. There is also a five-year Department of Education (DOE) precedent establishing that if a class was offered remotely in the past, it absolutely cannot be called an unreasonable accommodation to offer remote attendance for this class in the future. Plus, the DOE said in a letter to the public in 2020 that schools should not use federal law as a reason to deny remote learning. Despite its aforementioned troubling rhetoric, even the CDC recommends remote learning as an accommodation for at-risk students.

CWRU made its ability to provide remote education crystal clear two years ago. Since then, its legal requirement to continue to do so has been reiterated numerous times by multiple different governing institutions. This is not a question of ability. It’s not a question of requirement. It’s a question of how far CWRU thinks it can contort the law—and its “reasonable accommodations” qualifier—to appease donors and students who want a traditional college experience while the pandemic rages on, killing disabled people left and right. I have a right to an education. I have a right not to die. And I have a right not to be forced to choose between the two. It is not that difficult of a concept to grasp. So why is the administration struggling so much with this? There is no ethical reason to deny remote attendance. If students want to attend in person, and their professors are comfortable with it, then, by all means, allow it. But that’s a far cry from forcing everyone to do so.

The problem is that an influential group of people stands to gain from denying this accommodation: those who monetarily benefit from reinforcing the perception that this pandemic no longer exists. The sooner everyone gets back in person, the sooner we can cram more students into a room. The sooner we can require fewer safety measures at work. The sooner we can build more profit in industries that rely on crowds or travel. The sooner industries connected to CWRU can churn out more significant profits from their workers. The sooner we can appeal to coronavirus-denying donors who throttle the donation pools when schools dare to buy into conspiracies or scare tactics. The sooner we can stop dropping money on tests, sanitizers and masks—which could be going straight into the administration’s pockets instead. The sooner we can get back to building the castle of our 21st-century American lifestyle built on the foundations of the dead bodies of those deemed lesser.

There’s no doubt that CWRU’s ableist history—and present—have become more visible as of late, revealing an obvious decline in their ability or even desire to pretend that they care about access. I knew going into college that there would be parts of my education that would be subject to ableism; it is simply the reality of living in this society, at CWRU or anywhere else—especially as someone with multiple other marginalized identities. But when did tuition here become so expensive that my life was part of the bill? Would you rather see a fellow student physically present in class for two weeks and then in a coffin, or see them over a computer screen for one more semester? How much value does your in-person education carry compared to that of someone’s life? And what are you going to do about it?