As a growing number of people become fully vaccinated, the end of the pandemic seems on the horizon. Many are eager to discard the video networking platform Zoom as a relic of the pandemic. Yet, some students with disabilities have found Zoom immensely helpful—so much so, they argue, that it should be available even after full in-person classes resume.
Nahime Aguirre Mtanous (A.B. ’11), a first-year in UChicago’s Crown Family School of Social Work, and a handful of other students are leading the push for Zoom classes to continue after the pandemic ends. They argue that UChicago’s Student Disability Services (SDS) should create a position similar to the existing notetaker job, in which one student present in the class livestreams the lecture to the student learning remotely.
The group plans to discuss their concerns with the Crown Family School Dean Deborah Gorman-Smith soon and reach out to staffers of UChicago’s SDS office. Thrive, the incoming SG executive slate, has also endorsed the measure.
Mtanous said learning over Zoom has been extremely helpful for her while managing her disability. As an undergrad with no accommodations and no Zoom, she had a GPA of 2.2. She was even sent a letter by Dean Ellison telling her that her academic performance was not up to par. But now, she has been able to maintain a 3.8 GPA with the help of Zoom accommodations. This radical difference in learning style inspired her to rally other students with her to make sure the University leaves Zoom an option for others in the autumn.
“We would just like to see that the University of Chicago prioritizes the learning of neurodivergent students just as much as it does for students that are neurotypical, because we really have thrived in this format change,” Mtanous said. “We don't want academia to shut its doors on us just because it’s convenient now.”
Another first-year student in the Crown Family School who requested to remain anonymous has suffered from a chronic case of COVID-19 since contracting the virus last October. They mentioned that if not for Zoom and their professors being understanding and flexible, they most likely would have had to withdraw from school.
Contracting COVID, they said, has “open[ed] my eyes to disability justice and what people have been facing for a long, long time already, and have been complaining about that they shouldn't have to complain about. There are so many considerations, so many more considerations to everyday tasks that have to be taken into account now. With disability justice, a lot of the advocacy and administrative work still falls on us.”
When Mtanous and her peers learned that the University had announced that autumn quarter would be in person, they immediately contacted SDS with questions on how students with disabilities would be impacted in the fall. According to Mtanous, SDS does not currently know how they will accommodate students in the fall and if Zoom will play a role in the accommodations available.
Despite the unknowns surrounding SDS’s response, both Mtanous and the unnamed student have said that the professors and Dean of Students in the Crown Family School have been very helpful and accommodating of their needs.
“The whole reason why we’re organizing around this is because there seems to not be a clear answer, and students with disabilities deserve answers, and we deserve plans, and we deserve to not be an afterthought in this change of format, because a lot of us will get left behind and slip through the cracks,” Mtanos said. “Some of us have some real career aspirations that we want to work on because we’re now able to get the jobs, the Ph.D. programs, and the fellowship programs because of these class format changes.”