The Elephant in the Room: Accessibility at Tufts in the Age of COVID-19

Three semesters into virtual learning in the wake of a pandemic, the changing needs of the student body have reawoken conversations about accommodations and accessibility on campus. While the transition to virtual learning has been a drastic shift in the routines and daily lives of all students, it has uniquely impacted those with disabilities, mental illnesses, and various other chronic health concerns at Tufts. Articles covering some of the issues that students with disabilities face on campus have garnered attention in the past, and individual students and organizations alike have consistently voiced concerns about accessibility. Now, as a result of the strain on resources caused by the pandemic, the urgency for these concerns to be addressed has only increased. 

One of the key campus resources for students with disabilities is the Student Accessibility and Academic Resources (StAAR) Center. As described on the center’s website, it works to “provide reasonable accommodations to students with disabilities.” The center offers various assistive technologies, such as literacy and text-to-speech programs, laptops, as well as accommodations in residential housing, academics, and transportation. All of these resources are put forward with the aim of fostering “students’ educational growth and awareness” and promoting “access to an inclusive and collaborative learning environment.” 

The center has fulfilled these objectives in many regards. In the fall of 2018, approximately 15 percent of undergraduate students were formally registered with Student Accessibility Services at Tufts. In the fall of 2020, SAS and the Academic Resource Center merged to form the StAAR Center. As a result, the number of students registered with the center has likely increased, as many of the processes for receiving help have been streamlined and thus have become more accessible to the student body. According to Associate Dean of StAAR Kristen Behling, “[the merge] equates to less run-around, referrals to other offices, the need for additional appointments, and trying to find the services that [students] need specifically.”

However, as the university attempts to accommodate the needs of its students as they navigate the challenges associated with the pandemic, the promises of easy access have slowly diminished, and the limitations of some of Tufts’ programs have become increasingly apparent. 

Some students have expressed displeasure with how the university has approached accommodations and claim that the process of receiving proper aid can be quite difficult. Sophomore Stephanie Rifkin sought academic accommodations with the StAAR Center as she managed the effects of post-COVID symptoms from an infection that she developed on campus. Rifkin explained, “It took me a while to reach out to [the StAAR Center] because I didn’t really know how to approach asking for accommodations … They’re very focused on needing documentation from a doctor saying that you need accommodations, which is not something I have because this is so new … [and] that’s not something that every student is gonna be able to do.”

Rifkin described the Accessibility Services website as “very unwelcoming,” and “discouraging students from reaching out for help,” because the system expects the student to advocate for themselves at every step of this unfamiliar process, even though students applying for accommodations might not be able to reach out as consistently as is expected of them. “I almost didn’t reach out to them for accommodations because I didn’t think I would be able to get them … it was a big deterrent for me for asking because I was under the impression I wasn’t going to be able to get help,” she said. 

Even after making the initial appointment, Rifkin found the process of following up and communicating with the StAAR Center afterward to be difficult. “It seemed like they were expecting me to be on top of reaching out to them and getting after them on things and making sure they were doing their job,” Rifkin said. 

Although many students work past the online and administrative hurdles to get the support and resources they need, the ability of students to utilize their accommodations in class is not always certain. The discretion that professors have towards how they address student health and accommodations varies widely. For sophomore Jessie Goober, when her computer science classes were using PDFs that were not compatible with her screen reader program, her professors took steps to change them to a more accessible format. However, in other classes, she’s faced an increased workload and unaccommodating professors. “[I get] a lot of pushback of, ‘Well, that’s how it is,’ or ‘We can’t move this because this is how it is,’” Goober said. Though Goober mentioned that some professors do try their best to accomodate students, the fact that this cannot be guaranteed from class to class has proven to be a challenge. 

Senior Sabrina Fleishaker agrees that the lack of a university-wide protocol for professors has posed a problem for an accessible accommodations process on campus. Fleishaker is the secretary of the Tufts Chapter of Active Minds, an organization dedicated to mental health destigmatization and advocacy on campus. 

“I feel as though there should be some sort of codification, or at least some overall general policy. Even just a broad brush strokes type of thing, or just a kind of cut-your-students-some-slack kind of thing,” Fleishaker said. “And I know some professors have been great at this, but with the accommodation system, there’s no sort of universal standard for the professors.”

Additionally, some assistive technologies have become unavailable for some students as a direct result of the pandemic. According to a student assistant at Tisch Library who chose to remain anonymous, many of the laptops intended for student use are now out of circulation. “A large portion of the laptops we have for loaning out are broken … the ones that do work have all already been loaned out, so we can’t give them one,” they said. “This is mainly because they weren’t originally intended for long-term use.” To address this, the student recommended that Tufts increase the budget for the Division of Student Diversity and Inclusion to allow them to repair and loan out more laptops for student use. This move would make this element of social and academic engagement more accessible to the student body. 

In an editorial from February 2020, the Tufts Daily emphasized the importance of a collaborative approach to accommodations within the classroom. They presented various ways that faculty and administration could work more effectively to make the process of obtaining support more accessible to students that have voiced health concerns. They suggested that there be a representative that could serve as a mediator between the student and the administration who could work to “gather documentation, arrange for timely exemptions and coordinate makeup work” to streamline the process of receiving proper accommodations. The editorial encourages Tufts administrators and professors alike to “value student wellness above … convenience,” a sentiment that would be reflected in many of the statements that students made about health and wellness at Tufts. 

The pandemic and the subsequent shift to a virtual/hybrid model of teaching have illuminated the inconsistency of approaches to accessibility within and beyond the classroom. However, for some students with disabilities, there have also been some benefits. “[Because of the virtual format], a lot of my tests have been online, and because of the text to speech reader that I use, because I’m dyslexic, I’m much more compatible with that,” Goober said.

Recorded lectures, which have also become a new norm in the midst of the pandemic, not only allow remote students the ability to attend class at an appropriate time but also allow students with disabilities to adapt their class experience to their needs. Elaborating on the benefits of these recorded lectures, Goober said, “I have a slower processing speed as a part of my learning disability, so having those lectures recorded is extremely helpful because I can go back and review them.”

StAAR Center Accessibility and Assistive Technology Specialist Samantha Brumer echoed Goober’s sentiments in response to questions about accommodation changes due to the pandemic. “Not all student experiences are the same, and while some students faced increased barriers, others shared a preference for the remote academic environment,” Brumer said. “With regards to individual accommodations, many of our students found that they were easily transferable to the remote environment and in some cases no longer needed.” 

While this sentiment may hold true in some cases, online learning has also introduced a slew of obstacles to learning that students are forced to contend with. “What makes in-person learning effective is that there’s a more interactive feel to it, with a bunch of people in a classroom, discussing, perhaps raising their hands—whereas on Zoom, that interaction becomes more difficult,” Fleishaker said. “Asynchronous classes, in my opinion, are one of the more complicated situations because you might not even interact with your teacher for the entire class.”These different modalities limit some of the necessary engagement that is needed for social and academic support.

To many students, taking hybrid or fully in-person courses might appear like the antidote to several of the issues created by online learning. Goober highlighted that these course modes would still present major issues for deaf and hard of hearing students who would have to sit through classes taught by professors who have their mouths covered and voices muffled by masks. “[Hybrid learning] would have been a huge barrier [for deaf and HOH students] because they could not understand people because they rely heavily on lip-reading, especially because a lot of people don’t sign,” she said. “And so they wouldn’t be able to understand their professors, they wouldn’t be able to understand their friends.” As a result, Goober has heard that some deaf and HOH students opted not to come to campus this school year.

Additionally, online learning has proven to be incredibly isolating, and this isolation and lack of interaction are especially hard on those with mental health concerns. “Meeting and looking at faces on screens all day, especially for people with social anxiety, or potentially people who are neurodivergent and might otherwise have difficulty interacting socially, or even just people who have difficulty building support networks [has been a struggle],” Fleishaker said. She went on to clarify that “this is not any particular individual’s fault; it’s just that the circumstances are difficult.” 

But, as Rifkin said, “It’s not like there are support groups for this.” The lack of socialization and communication among students due to pandemic isolation has made looking for support within a welcoming community increasingly difficult.

For some groups, the isolating nature of the pandemic has made student organizing and outreach difficult to arrange. As Goober put it, “people with disabilities during the pandemic, especially health-related disabilities … it’s just hitting them on all sides. So [ABLE] has a very limited capacity, during this pandemic more so than we already do.”

Counseling and Mental Health Services (CMHS) Director Julie Ross agreed with some of the concerns about the accessibility of organizations and support groups surrounding health and wellbeing. She explained in an email that “some of the virtual groups and workshops have not been as well-attended as we would have liked (and not as well-attended as when we are able to meet in person).”

Ross partially attributed the low attendance of these workshops to the very issue that necessitated their creation: excessive Zoom use. “We have been hearing from students now that they are, understandably, exhausted, and suffering from Zoom fatigue, and that this has been an obstacle to engaging with these programs for some students,” Ross said. “We believe that communication is also an issue, as sometimes students request programs that we are already offering, but they don’t know about them.”

CMHS set out to address the needs of students maneuvering college in a pandemic. “We learned that students wanted opportunities for virtual spaces, and we increased our group and workshop offerings, including adding online connecting spaces for students in quarantine and isolation,” Ross said. She shared CMHS’s plans for more programming in the future to bridge the social and emotional gaps amongst students. “One of these is called Project Connect, and is a peer-facilitated small group connection project that has been very successful in other university settings,” she said. 

Additionally, a recent project petition to create a Tufts Wellness Center has been garnering campus-wide support. Introduced by the Entrepreneurship Association of Tufts, the center would “allow Tufts to continue to prioritize student mental health, ultimately benefiting the university at large.” The center aims to collaborate with CMHS to address the limited resources available to those looking to connect with others and manage stress. According to the business plan, the center will be active in ”promoting a sense of belonging, creating an environment that encourages and embraces open, respectful dialogue on mental health, and creating interactive inclusion by supporting diverse perspectives and backgrounds.” 

Despite the enthusiasm among advocacy groups about the new center, there still exists a history of unsuccessful support groups and programs that petered out in the critical developmental phase that the center is in currently. Tufts Community Union Senate member Griffen Saul recalled that there were several attempts over the years to create communities and foster outreach surrounding disability advocacy but that many projects never came to fruition.

He clarified that “a lot of the faculty and the student services that work specifically with students with disabilities, they, from my conversation with them, have been very receptive.” However, due to some of the machinations of the Board of Trustees, Saul said, “It’s been really challenging to get there to be any kind of movement around this issue.”

Ross echoes the sentiments that organizations like the Wellness Center and various advocacy groups work to address, suggesting that reaching out to peers, or to CMHS services, is an essential step towards ameliorating some of the mental health issues the pandemic has caused. “Among the important stress-reducers are acknowledging the impact of this national health emergency on each of us, and adapting expectations of ourselves accordingly, practicing self-compassion, and doing our best to treat our bodies well with sufficient rest, nutrition, and exercise,” Ross said. 

Even though there have been some deliberate efforts to expand accessibility to resources on campus, there is still much work to do. The pandemic has not only exacerbated already-existing issues that disabled students face, but has also presented new challenges of accessibility, and the inconsistency of the approaches that the university has taken to address these issues is still being questioned. 

“To think that that’s a reality that some students have to face, that some students have to come onto Tufts campus—they’re touring the school and they’re like, wow, I really love this school, but you know what, it’s just not accessible enough for me,” Saul said. “We’ve got to realize that [accessibility] is not just an individual fight but a collective fight. I think that’s something that this campus would benefit from.”