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Where are the disabled students in Rice’s COVID-19 plan?

Photo Courtesy Shane DiGiovanna and Emma Siegel

By Shane DiGiovanna and Emma Siegel     8/25/20 8:48pm

Editor’s Note: This is a guest opinion that has been submitted by a member of the Rice community. The views expressed in this opinion are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of the Thresher or its editorial board. All guest opinions are fact-checked and edited for clarity and conciseness by Thresher editors.

In July, Dean of Undergraduates Bridget Gorman sent out an email to the undergraduate student body which highlighted the policies for Rice’s reopening plan for the fall. It is very thorough and we greatly appreciate the work the administration has put into this plan, but we have a lot of concerns about how it will affect students with learning and physical disabilities, as well as students with medical and mental health issues. We urge the administration to ensure that the voices of students with disabilities will be heard and that their needs will be accommodated. 

A main concern of ours is ensuring that our student body’s needs and accommodations will be met adequately in this next year. Many students on Rice’s campus receive academic accommodations, one of the most common accommodations is note-taking, which can be inefficient in the best of times. If a student attends class in person one day then remotely another, it will be difficult for them to receive notes for both days in a timely manner, especially since Rice has not included this accommodation in their COVID-19 response.

As the university continues to adjust to the new remote and distance learning territory, it can be even more difficult for those with learning disabilities to adjust to these new normals.  Without in-person contact, those whose learning disabilities increase struggles with concentration, for instance, will have to work twice as hard to maintain focus in a remote setting. We urge the university to consider hiring a learning disability specialist who can work with our professors on best practices for inclusive forms of distance-based learning. 

With our current public health crisis, many students are dealing with heightened mental health concerns. It is up to us as a community to not only coexist with our peers, but to support and uplift one another. That is why we believe that accommodations should be made available not only to those with diagnosed disabilities, but for anyone who may need extra support during this difficult and transformative period. 

It is inevitable that many students will eventually contract COVID-19 on campus, and the severity of the symptoms means many of these students will be effectively temporarily disabled. This makes the plan to use Sid Richardson College to quarantine students quite concerning. With Sid Rich's tall stair-based entrance, many students with physical disabilities have noted its inaccessibility. As such, in the preparation for the new Sid Rich, discussions regarding the federal Americans with Disabilities Act compliance have been underway. However, our concerns lie in the old Sid Rich and its inaccessibility as well as its elevators as a conduit of spreading the pathogen. How are sick students supposed to navigate Sid Rich using the stairs? Additionally, there has been little discussion of support systems and accommodations that will allow students, disabled or not, who are diagnosed with COVID-19 to keep up with Rice’s demanding workload. We hope Rice will recognize the difficulty for students to simultaneously cope with both the physical and emotional tolls of a positive COVID-19 test result. 

A centerpiece of Rice’s plan is to have many classes take place outdoors in tents. In the update on June 8, it was written that there will be four temporary “hurricane-proof” 50-by-90-feet structures with heating, cooling and lighting as well as five open-sided tents. While the 50-by-90 structure itself may be able to withstand hurricane winds, Houston rain is often accompanied by flooding. This flooding makes it very difficult for those students in wheelchairs or with mobility issues to navigate grass. As such, how will storms and other weather issues affect their accessibility? Will both these outdoor structures and tents be wheelchair-accessible? Unlike the details regarding the 50-by-90 structures, there was little information regarding the features of the tents. Handling the heat is difficult for anyone in Houston in August, but for those with certain medical conditions, these difficulties can be greatly exacerbated. Will all of these tents have air conditioning? Lastly, how will outdoor distractions be mitigated in these environments? 

We hope that as this new uncertain school year begins, these potential situations and needs for inclusive academia will be taken in stride. We expect Rice to fully live up to its claimed commitments to diversity and its Culture of Care. With this new world of uncertainty, it is more important for Rice than ever to fully address the needs of disabled and medically complex students. 

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