Accessibility on the Fringes in a Time of Crisis

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Mardi 26 mai 2020

Guest blog by James Deaville, professor and musicologist at Carleton University.

Post-secondary institutions have responded with alacrity to the needs of undergraduate students, whose lives and studies have been disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Graduate students whose research relies upon lab work, ethnography or archival study have found themselves more severely disadvantaged by the novel coronavirus’ impacts on access to these vital resources (Zahneis 2020). Faculty and staff have experienced significant disruptions of their own, as entry to campus offices is prohibited and the distinction between home and work further erodes. Some of us have the extra charge of home-schooling children while teaching, administering and—as time and energy permit—engaging in research activities. Add to that the veritable explosion of information available online about teaching and administering in lockdown, and the system threatens to collapse under the weight of responsibility. All of this presupposes that students, faculty and staff are adequately able-bodied and -minded and decently funded to withstand the pressures imposed by the crisis.

However, in their communications recognizing the need to ensure the health, safety and security of members of the university community, administrators around the COVID-19 crisis have by and large overlooked two of our most vulnerable populations: those with disabilities and the elderly (i.e. retirees). Typically, they are the least empowered and equipped to express their needs and yet occupy especially precarious positions in the current pandemic, ranging from the inability to access online teaching materials to the heightened danger for health and well-being. I was recently shocked to hear of the passing of an old friend and retired colleague, Joe Adamson from McMaster, who died from COVID-19 at the age of 69. During the best of times our institutions have marginalized these segments of our community, and now they face challenges that endanger their very existence. The academy nevertheless seems not to have taken notice of the dire straits in which they find themselves in a time of increased threat.

Of course, these groupings cover a wide swath of conditions. What they have in common is that their means of remediation coalesce around the concept and practice of accessibility. The Accessible Canada Act (signed into law in June, 2019) mandates a country free from barriers, defined as “anything physical, architectural, technological or attitudinal, anything that is based on information or communications or anything that is the result of a policy or a practice–that hinders the full and equal participation in society of persons with a physical, mental, intellectual, learning, communication or sensory impairment or a functional limitation” (ACA 2019). While a plethora of resources exists for remote teaching and learning, I ask, do they fulfil the legal and moral obligations of accessibility both for students and faculty? As Jonathan Custodio notes in the Chronical of Higher Education from April 7, 2020, “the shift to online learning brings additional accessibility problems.” I would add to the statement the extra pressures put on administrative work and research by the academy’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The academic aspects of the crisis should give us cause to re-evaluate and expand the remit of accessibility beyond the ramps and parking spaces that accommodation guidelines prescribe. I like the way the authors of the government publication Older Canadians on the Move (2017) advocate for an awareness of the O/other that transcends the guidelines for accessibility and that focuses on individuals, ensuring that they “feel comfortable, safe, valued and respected” (6). Whether in relation to students and colleagues with disabilities or retired members of the academic community, the mindfulness that creates this sense of well-being around us is something we can cultivate, manifesting itself in actions, large and small. It might entail adopting asynchronous online teaching for students, helping to reduce the overall administrative workload for a faculty colleague, or extending full library borrowing privileges to retirees. Such visible and invisible actions arise from mindful awareness of O/others in our community, which cannot be legislated in the form of a set of cut-and-dried accessibility practices.

University policy makers and administrators need to be mindful of the accessibility requirements for faculty, students and staff with disabilities and in retirement when drafting plans for the possible return to open campuses in the fall. In fact, a return in September can be more treacherous than the departure in March, since the virus has spread so much more broadly. The Washington Post recommends that “special attention must be paid to mitigating risk for the more vulnerable,” which however extends beyond the risk to physical health. For students, faculty and staff with disabilities as well as retirees, most of whom have spent the last five months in a safe and accessible environment, the re-opening of campus could occasion serious anxiety over the associated health risks, the possible loss of prior disability accommodations, and the potential for funding cuts through provincial austerity measures. All of us would be well advised to be mindful of those within our ambits whose vulnerability increases in such a time of crisis and may remain elevated even afterwards. As Calla Wahlquist posts in The Guardian from April 12, the response to the novel coronavirus may have generated greater steps toward accessibility within society, “but how long will it last?”


Accessible Canada Act (S.C. 2019, c. 10). 

Chen, Lanhee J. & Singh, Vanila M. (2020). “Here’s How College Students Can Return to Campus in the Fall.” Washington Post, May 8, 2020. 

Council of Canadian Academies (2017). Older Canadians on the Move: The Expert Panel on the Transportation Needs of an Aging Population. Ottawa, ON. 

Custodio, Jonatha (2020). “Disabled Students Already Faced Learning Barriers. Then Coronavirus Forced an Abrupt Shift to Online Classes.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, April 07, 2020. 

Wahlquist, Calla (2020). “The Coronavirus Response Has Created a More Accessible Society – But How Long Will It Last?” The Guardian, April 12, 2020. 

Zanheis, Megan (2020). “For Many Graduate Students, Covid-19 Pandemic Highlights Inequities.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, March 26, 2020. 

James Deaville teaches Music in the School for Studies in Art and Culture at Carleton University, Ottawa. He edited Music in Television (Routledge, 2010) and with Christina Baade co-edited Music and the Broadcast Experience (Oxford, 2016) and is currently co-editing The Oxford Handbook on Music and Advertising (2020). His publications have appeared in the Journal of the American Musicological Society, Journal of the Society for American Music, American Music, Sound and the Moving Image, and Music and Politics, and he has contributed to books published by Oxford, Cambridge, Routledge, Chicago and Yale, among others. Last year he has received a four year grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada to conduct research on the roles of music and sound in cinematic and televisual representations of disability. He also published last year the article “The moaning of (un-)life: Animacy, muteness and eugenics in cinematic and televisual representation” in the Disability and Voice special issue of the Journal of Interdisciplinary Voice Studies.



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