Easing Covid Restrictions: What Does it Mean for Disabled Students?

Easing Covid Restrictions: What Does it Mean for Disabled Students?

“Woo-hoo, life’s back to normal!” – white, able-bodied people, presumably

For many, the Government lifting most Covid restrictions has been a welcome relief. But for those who are disabled and immunocompromised, it represents a scary step into a world now fraught with risk. 

Sean Prenter, co-president of the Otago University Disabled Students Association (OUDSA), explained to Critic Te Arohi just what the move away from a zero-Covid strategy means for their community. He described the changes to traffic light settings as a “huge shock,” saying that: “Moving away from an elimination strategy means the risk of spread is going to be far more certain.”

Sean expressed concerns that these changes leave the disabled community out of the often-referenced “team of 5 million”, noting that “[The] policy is completely out of touch with the realities of the disabled community.” He said that the root of the disconnect was a "lack of adequate consultation with the disabled community throughout the pandemic”. Instead, the hegemonic narrative has remained entrenched in the outdated “medical model of disability”, in which disability is seen through a “lens of deficit” requiring a remedial cure, rather than “considering the diversity that disability brings”. As such, the Disability Rights Commissioner is launching a human rights investigation over the government’s handling of the pandemic. 

Meanwhile, the University told Critic Te Arohi that they plan to consult with OUSA and OUDSA surrounding the future of vaccine mandates, whilst announcing the future learning arrangements prior to the mid-semester break. Sean stressed that there is still a need to be careful in order to protect vulnerable communities. He asked that “students and staff maintain hypervigilance, hygiene, social distancing, wear masks and get vaccinated”.

The collegiate structure of Otago Uni (where individual colleges/departments run mostly independently), means that there are no uniform accessibility standards for teaching. Sean is a firm advocate for hybridisation, where students are able to effectively engage with adequate online resources as well as with in-person lectures. These online resources need to be carefully prepared: as anyone who has struggled with a silent Zoom lecture or a patchy Echo360 recording will know, just having stuff online does not make it any more engaging or effective. 

“Tertiary education is a space where disabled people can reclaim their position as equal citizens,” said Sean. He added, though, that this ideal was being undermined by under-resourced and poorly-standardised accessible learning. While he praised Disability Services, calling it the “best disabled students’ support in the country,” he said that they should be there to support learners rather than doing all the work to “make up for inaccessible learning”.

At the heart of the issue, Sean thought, is that many people are simply unaware of the intersectional effects Covid-19 has on our communities. Basically, intersectionality means different categories (e.g. ethnicity, gender, disability status) give you different levels of privilege and disadvantage, and these categories can intersect with each other. As an example, Sean pointed out that “the disabled community, youth, and Asian communities are vulnerable, and the outcomes for Pasifika and Māori are disproportionate[ly negative]”. So, as an example, a disabled young Māori person would have three separate levels of disadvantage, and understanding how these interact is the essence of intersectionality. 

The Uni has already been making some positive progress in this regard, Sean said, with the Sustainability Office and Social Impact Studio being helpful in providing accessible resources to make sense of updated government restrictions. Sean’s keen for more to be done though, urging students to push for “social accountability and allyship to the disabled community,” including by pressuring the Uni to mandate hybrid lectures amongst all departments. There needs to be a shift away from simply being “responsible sensible students,” he said, towards building “civic cohesion”, where students can more actively push back against ableism and stigmatisation. 

This article first appeared in Issue 7, 2022.
Posted 1:31am Saturday 9th April 2022 by Zak Rudin.