What COVID-19 Has Taught Us about Access to Equitable Education

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This post was written by NCTE member Micah Savaglio.

In a recent opinion piece published in Inside Higher Ed (“COVID-19 Has Taught Us What Intelligence Really Is”), psychologist and psychometrician Robert J. Sternberg says that “COVID-19 has taught us something important about intelligence,” which he goes on to define as “the ability to adapt to the environment.”

I admire Sternberg’s call for a broader concept of intelligence than most methods of assessment are designed to address. Yet if recent reporting is any indication, his opinion may ignore a wide array of challenges facing college and university students in the age of COVID-19.

As key disability studies scholars have shown, learning environments within higher education are often designed with only some, not all, bodies in mind. As a result, many students with physical, mental, and other disabilities confront barriers that prevent them from full and equal access to the spaces and activities of their classes.

In other words, when we fail to center disability in our course designs, we actively decrease access to equitable education for entire classes of people. At this critical moment in the fight for both disability rights and academic equity, it is time to radically rethink not only what higher education can look like but who gets to design it.

For instance, what if instead of focusing on rigid notions of ability, we started paying closer attention to the environments we expect our students to adapt to? What if, as Jay Dolmage has suggested, we “more consciously and systematically ask for and utilize feedback from students, especially students with disabilities?” It’s not enough to retrofit inaccessible learning environments for students who experience barriers to access; addressing students’ diverse access needs means taking a much more proactive and inclusive approach to course design.

In my research at Temple University on how undergraduate students experience course policies and practices in the first-year writing classroom, COVID-19 has taught me something important about access. I have consistently found what disability scholar Margaret Price calls “conflicts of access,” wherein conditions that enhance access for some students can decrease access for others (“Access” n.p.).

For example, several of the students with whom I spoke reported significant benefits to their participation as a result of the university’s shift to online instruction. Take Becca, who highlighted the conflicting relationship between her “really bad chronic insomnia” and her writing course’s pre-COVID, in-person attendance policy. Despite receiving disability service accommodations authorizing her to miss double the number of allowed absences without penalty, Becca reported that in-person attendance was “a struggle” that “really stressed me out,” adding that she “can’t wake up at eleven twenty” when “I’m up till six, seven in the morning.” Later in our interview, Becca reported that the course’s transition to primarily asynchronous online learning has “been good for me,” allowing her to engage course content in her own time.

But the same university-wide shift that made participation more accessible for Becca was experienced as limiting for Madison, at least in her non-English courses. Linking her disability and ADHD to “how I learn,” Madison described a clash between her preferred modes of communication and her asynchronous online courses. When I asked Madison to elaborate, she explained,

“It was kind of like I got lost [in those courses], and then . . . it would be the week before the final exam, and I’m like, “Wait, I missed the past week” because it’s online . . . And I wasn’t meeting with the teacher.”

Conversely, Madison reported that the synchronous component of her online writing course (meeting with her instructor over Zoom to discuss paper drafts), “especially for me, with learning disabilities, really helps so that you can . . . connect and . . . get on the same page with the teacher.”

The varying levels of access these students reported suggests that one person’s virtual access needs may exist in tension with the needs of others. Yet while such conflicts may appear irreconcilable, they also point to the need for a more flexible model for delivering education. Students’ access needs may vary, but addressing the needs of one student need not come at the expense of others. If we design with multiple accesses in mind, we can work to build learning environments flexible enough to address a wide range of access needs at once.

Sternberg says intelligence is really “your ability to adapt to the environment.” Rather than construing the challenges of virtual learning as questions of adaptive intelligence, why not center students and faculty with disabilities by inviting them (and paying them) to help envision and design flexible courses that will survive the pandemics and unforeseen challenges to come? Then we can measure how adaptive and flexible a learning environment is, rather than how “intelligent” students are when they succeed, or fail, to adapt to a new normal as rigid as what it replaced.

Micah Savaglio is an English doctoral candidate at Temple University. His research interests include composition and rhetoric, disability studies, multimodality, and creative writing. He can be reached at [email protected].  This research was supported in part by Temple University’s Disability Resources and Services and First-Year Writing Program. 

It is the policy of NCTE in all publications, including the Literacy & NCTE blog, to provide a forum for the open discussion of ideas concerning the content and the teaching of English and the language arts. Publicity accorded to any particular point of view does not imply endorsement by the Executive Committee, the Board of Directors, the staff, or the membership at large, except in announcements of policy, where such endorsement is clearly specified.

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