Photo Credit: Ben White (via Unsplash)
Memorial participates in academic ableism by not mandating online options for all courses.
On January 19th, 2022, Memorial University announced that members of the university community were to prepare for a return to in-person learning on January 31st. As of January 30th, there are 2,232 active cases of COVID-19 in the province, 18 hospitalizations, and 38 total deaths. Yet, despite these alarming numbers, and MUNFA and the MUNSU both asking for the university to reconsider their decision, Memorial believes that its campus is a safe place to be. From the outside looking in, the members of our university community are young, healthy, and vibrant; a low risk to a virus for which most have been vaccinated. However, looks are deceiving, and for some members of our community, contracting COVID-19 would not just be a moderate respiratory illness, but instead a case of life-threatening, possibly life-ending, illness.
Those in the MUN community who are immunocompromised, disabled, or have family/friends who are immunocompromised or disabled are at-risk.
People are being overlooked in the name of returning to any kind of ‘normalcy’, purely for the sake of the comfort of the abled. The COVID-19 pandemic has shone a blazing light on the ableism so deeply entrenched in academic and capitalistic environments, and to this, Memorial is no exception. By not mandating online options for all classes, Memorial is participating in the perpetuation of academic ableism. Memorial University is unapologetically carrying out a game of survival of the fittest.
Ableism is the discrimination of and social prejudice towards disabled persons in favour of the abled and typical abilities. In academia, it can be presented through the denial of accommodations purely because an institution feels inconvenienced to provide them. For the last two years, students have had periods of both online and in-person learning; a testament to how accessible and technologically easy it is for online learning to be implemented. The pandemic has proven that accessibility could be possible. The pandemic has also proven that accessibility is only widely implemented when the health and safety of the abled have been threatened. Yet, when the vast majority have been vaccinated, and the abled are largely protected with illusions of safety, these accommodations that kept both them and their disabled colleagues safe, disappear. Those without disabilities or immunocompromises are able to continue with in-person learning, perhaps unaffected by university mandate.
What does this say about our university? Our community?
Disabled students and faculty continue to fight for the online accommodations once given so freely. The fight for these accommodations to remain in place is truly a fight for equal access. A fight to not have our human rights violated. It’s a fight to live despite active threats to those who are immunocompromised. Why then are we not offering mandated online options for classes to protect many of those we first wished to keep safe?
Memorial’s chief risk officer, Greg McDougall, asserted to CBC News that returning to in-person learning on campus is what is necessary for “the act of academic quality”. McDougall is merely the public voice for the many who continue to glorify the privilege of in-person learning as the highest academic standard. The idea that online learning devalues one’s academic potential is incredibly ableist towards those for whom in-person learning has the potential to be deadly. The assertion that online learning does not hold up the standard of academic quality automatically assumes that disabled people who may require adaptive ways of learning are not up to par with abled academics who attend in-person classes.
Memorial is not just a tight-knit community for those who aspire towards higher learning as hiding underneath is a capitalist institution, and ableism has its roots in capitalism. One must examine the capitalist influences on the decision to return to in-person learning to assert that the University is perpetuating academic ableism. Memorial contributes approximately $627 million annually to the province’s economy and provides 9,922 jobs. In addition, according to the Memorial University Economic Impact Assessment in April 2021, “it is estimated that non-local student expenditures generate total GDP impact of more than $70 million in the province, with approximately 96% of this impact in the St. John’s region” (30). What then might these numbers be if Memorial chose to continue remote learning for the safety of all?
One particularly worrying prospect would be the decline of revenue generated by the lack of non-local students moving to St. John’s to attend in-person classes. Many of these students would choose to stay in their hometowns or cities, investing their money in their respective economies. By continuing to teach the rest of the winter semester remotely, students, faculty members, and visitors would not be purchasing food and beverages from the University Cafeteria or other campus cafes, they would not be paying for parking on campus, profit from the bookstore would steadily decrease, and businesses in the surrounding area would see a decline in sales. However, tuition sales have not decreased while remote learning has taken place, nor have fees such as campus renewal, student services, or recreation fees, despite lack of access to these services. The push to return to primarily in-person learning is also a push for increased monetary gain, all the while fully cognizant and accepting of the traumatic effects this will have on disabled students and faculty. The university system was not created for those who are not easily profited from. Thus, the creation of widespread accessibility and accommodations will not be mandated unless it carries the promise of monetary gain. For Memorial to be an allied institution, it must take on an anti-capitalistic approach to the safety of its students and staff. People have to come before profit; it can no longer be merely a call to action, it must be action taken with vigour.
As of January 30th, 2022, 2,917 people have signed a change.org petition created to persuade Memorial to offer a completely online option for students who wish to avail of these accommodations. Similarly, 751 people have signed a petition to have labs taught remotely. In spite of fervent opposition from students, faculty members, and members of the local community, Memorial continues to prepare for in-person learning. In early January, Chief Medical Officer, Janice Fitzgerald, stated that due to the high rate of transmission of the Omicron variant, most people will contract the virus. This may be a daunting reality, but it is not an excuse to abandon necessary accommodations, thus abandoning Memorial’s duty to protect vulnerable members of the university community. It is unacceptable for Memorial University to sacrifice the lives of its disabled members for the sake of normalcy, for the sake of the abled and for the growth of its economic gain. The astonishing lack of action on behalf of the university, despite pleas for reform from its own community, is a silent affirmation of what Memorial truly cares about rather than who it truly cares for. If Memorial University desires to be an inclusive, accessible learning environment for disabled persons, it certainly is doing a poor job.