Back in February 2019, when I was an eighth grader, I and hundreds of other nervous students toured my future Chicago high school. My tour had one major difference though.
Since I use an electric wheelchair, I needed to see the school from an accessibility standpoint. I was getting a preview of all the obstacles that would undoubtedly mar my high school experience.
My tour group was just me and my parents. And the tour guide was the building’s architect, an older gentleman who wore a checkered suit that looked straight out of the 1970s. As he told us some boring story about the school’s history, I rolled down the hallway in my electric chair, catching little snippets of conversations from a sea of hormonal teenagers.
As soon as their classes began, and the hallway was clear, I continued my trek to the west wing of the school, only to be met by yet another room I had to enter that didn’t have an automatic opener. The tour guide brushed past me, apologizing quickly for the inconvenience. “You can always get an adult to open the door, anyways,” he said.
Finally, after all these years, there was a learning environment suited to me as a disabled student.
Throughout the rest of the tour, I kept a log of notes on my phone, detailing each access issue I would have to deal with, or try to correct, when I became a freshman. And there were many of them, ranging from steep ramps to heavy metal doors that I wouldn’t be able to push open when it was finally time to leave for the day. Every time I typed another note into my phone, I was hit with a wave of inescapable dread.
In the ensuing months, I kept revisiting those notes on my phone, mentally preparing myself for exactly what I would have to fight for. Then, of course, came the pandemic, and the whole school system shifted over to virtual learning. So when freshman year began last fall, all of my classes were still on Zoom.
A lot of the non-disabled students vehemently disliked this, since Zoom made it so they couldn’t hang out with their friends in-person or participate in time-honored high school activities like playing badminton (yes, we have a badminton team). On the other hand, I felt joy and security in my learning situation, because — finally, after all these years — there was a learning environment suited to me as a disabled student.
It’s been wonderful and freeing. So freeing, in fact, that when the new school year starts, I want to continue learning virtually. But recently, with the pandemic getting under some semblance of control, the Illinois State Board of Education unanimously voted that all schools will go back to fully in-person learning — apparently without giving a thought to how this would rip away the benefits of Zoom learning for disabled students. I am angry about this decision and, quite frankly, afraid of what the new school year will bring.
To understand why, let’s take a look at my pre-pandemic schooling experience. At my grade school, I would leave classes five minutes early, yet still arrive at the next class five minutes late. (It’s a big building.) By my calculations, that’s 80 minutes squandered a day. If you multiply that by a five-day school week, you get 400 minutes of missed instruction a week. Every month, I missed more than a full 24 hours’ worth of instruction. What did I miss? I don’t know, maybe how to solve for X? Or how to conjugate a French verb? Perhaps how to dismantle a bomb? This is valuable learning time I will never get back.
I struggled with all manner of access issues as I attempted to get a quality education. There were the times that the elevator was broken, keeping me from reaching my classes upstairs. None of the classroom doors had been outfitted with access buttons, so I had to beg my teachers to please leave the door ajar. That way I didn’t have to suffer the indignity of rapping on the door, then pressing my upraised hands against the bulletproof glass window so that my instructor would even be able to see me.
I often quipped to my friends that I was playing a never-ending game of access-issue whack-a-mole.
These problems were perverse and frequent — so frequent, in fact, I often quipped to my friends that I was playing a never-ending game of access-issue whack-a-mole. Every time I solved one problem, another one popped up, demanding me to strike it down with my mallet of words. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve cited the Americans with Disabilities Act building-accessibility requirements. Sometimes I’d call in my parents to help, and we’d spend another fury-filled hour in an administrator’s office.
Zoom ended (temporarily) the whack-a-mole game for me. I have no access issues in my own bedroom, surrounded by my novels and creature comforts. Once the physical barriers were removed, I could actually participate academically to the fullest extent possible — the same way my peers did.
To start with, when learning virtually, there was no danger of missing class, unless I overslept or the internet went down. And using Zoom, I witnessed exactly what was being said at the beginning and the end of my algebra class, not only from an academic perspective — I finally learned how to properly set up a multi-step equation! — but also from a social one.
I never had a lot of friends growing up because all the time I spent fighting a myriad of access issues made it so I couldn’t really participate in many of the social aspects of grade school. Zoom allowed me to observe those rituals, and, when I played my cards right, participate in them myself.
In the five minutes before dismissal of every class, the chat lit up like a wildfire, with hundreds of messages from my classmates. These messages — which we tried not to laugh at, so our teachers wouldn’t check the chat — were a snapshot into contemporary teen culture, covering topics like the most recent Tik Tok trend or viral Youtube video. Sure, it may have been virtual, but that connection was real and gave me a tie to the other freshmen whom I’d never met in real life.
The change has been noticeable. I’m feeling like a bigger part of my broader school community, and I’m overall a much happier person. My grades have gone up significantly. (I got a 90 on my last math exam!) I know virtual learning wasn’t great for everyone. Zoom may have made life more inaccessible to other disabled people, like those who have learning disabilities and benefit from an in-person experience. But I’m not advocating for a Zoom-only school year. I just want the option to be there for students who benefit from it, like me.
Looking through a screen, I finally saw and experienced an education that worked.
“As always, our top priority is our students, and we know that in most cases, in-person learning is in their best interest,” wrote the superintendent of schools for the state board of ed, Carmen Ayala, in a blog post about the decision. The students who aren’t her “top priority”? Kids like me, who thrived during remote learning.
The one exception to the rule: Students who are both unvaccinated and under a quarantine order from the Illinois Department of Health can keep on doing remote learning. If the department can make that exception, why not extend it to include disabled students — or anyone, for that matter, who wants to keep remote learning?
When COVID-19 hit, the world stopped in a second. So we had to find new ways of doing things. And, sometimes, just like an old computer, when you reboot it, things run smoother and better than they once did. At least it did for me. Looking through a screen, I finally saw and experienced an education that worked.
I am dreading revisiting that long list of access issues still saved in the notes app on my phone. When we go back to the tired, inaccessible way of doing schooling, I am anticipating a terrible sophomore slump, and I will mourn my freshman year, when I was finally able to soar.