Tuesday, October 31, 2023

Inaccessible Accessibility

Why is remote learning suddenly so difficult to access when we have all the tech we need to pull it off?

When I was in grade 12, I started to just show up to classes I needed to go to. I had high 90s, so I just went for clarification when I couldn't understand the textbook, and I showed up for every lab and test. That's what worked best for me as a learner. Unfortunately, missing classes didn't go over well with admin, and I was "disinvited" to be in school. I loved learning, and I did very well on tests and assignments, but I never actually finished high-school.

I didn't feel like a rebel or the trouble-maker they might have seen me as. I just found it painfully tedious to sit through lengthy explanations of something I already understood, and I was unable to (and not allowed to) just tune it out and do other work during class. Could you even imagine bringing a walkman to class?? It's rude to do other work while someone's talking, so every class was an exercise in tolerating the repetitive droning on and on until everyone understood and was quiet enough for me to finally start the homework questions. 

Then I went to university a few years later, as a mature student, and nobody took attendance, and I could actually learn in the way that worked best for me. I went to most classes because they were full of rousing discussion, but I didn't go when profs (often "instructors") just literally read out the textbook to us. I thrived in that environment that enabled autonomy over my own learning and went on to do a masters as well. 

Now universities take attendance, and it's vital to attend, in person, even if nothing significant is gained from my presence in the room for myself, for my prof, or for the class. 

Some argue it's because these are discussion based classes, but the questioning isn't like it was back in the day when we might have faced questions like, What would change in your life if you lived by Epictetus' Enchiridion? It's more often, What do you think of this quotation from the text, and this one, and this one, and this one? It's brutal trying to keep my eyes open for it. The former type of questioning tests understanding of the content and the ability to apply it, and it provokes a response by enabling specific and relevant personal reflection and discussion, which can further help other students in the room to better understand the content if they were struggling. The latter could be answered without having done the reading at all. In some classes, some of my classmates haven't even gotten a copy of the books we're to read, and it's made zero difference in their grades. If you know me at all, you know I've read all the books, and any books those books casually mention, but knowledge and understanding don't matter as much as in person attendance. I prepare for class in spades, but none of the questions test my understanding of anything we were asked to read anyway.

I think part of the problem is that the profs know people don't read the books, so they're wary of asking specific questions, so then more people don't do the readings in a downward spiral of avoidance.

And most of my classmates say absolutely nothing during discussions, yet aren't threatened with removal.

So what's the pedagogical rationale for a loss of credit if a student isn't physically present, but is engaged and watching all the recorded lessons at home and completing all the work on time? I can understand it at the high-school level where funding is based on attendance (which is a problem with the funding model, not with the kids). But there seems to be no reason for it at the university level.   

But there it is. 

Now with Covid, I find it difficult to get in the door knowing being physically in the classroom is irrelevant to my learning (despite being told I'm missing so much by not being there) and also knowing it could be life threatening. I haven't made it back to classes in one of my courses since we were put in groups to answer questions together: I was made to move into the middle of the room, away from my carefully chosen seat next to an open window, in order to have three unmasked people talk into my face from about a foot away, all of them projecting forcefully because the room was so noisy with everyone talking at once. It also hits differently this term because I asked people to please wear mask if possible, and they declined. These are not my peeps

I've been told I can miss just one more class.   

I hate to be such a bother, but I really can't go into that classroom again. Next steps: Accessibility paperwork. 

There's no box for "avoiding a disabling, fatal disease," so I had to check "mental illness" as my reason for needing accommodations. I booked the earliest available online therapist to do some assessments and fill in the forms. I told her I left my most recent class halfway through because of the amount of maskless coughing in the room. I told her that I had a previous therapist who explained to me that I don't have anxiety; I'm trying to avoid a known pathogen, and everyone else is just in denial. This new one went down a different path. 

She wants me to try exposure therapy, to get closer and closer to people who are coughing without a mask on, and then I'll be able to go to all my classes again!! I disagreed vehemently, and she explained, at length, that she's seen exposure therapy work, so I should trust her on this and just try it - try approaching people who are visibly ill. In no time at all, I'll be able to sit right next to someone coughing without even noticing it!

ME: Oh, I get that exposure therapy can work, for sure, but you don't put someone in a room with a hungry lion to help them get over their fear of lions.

HER: Of course not! You help them, bit by bit, get to the zoo, and then get near the cage, then get right up to the cage. 

ME: Sure, and I'll get right up to the building, but I'm not going in it if it's likely to have people carrying a disabling disease without any precautions in place, just like I'm not going in the lion's cage. 

HER: But I've seen people get Covid and get better. You have no proof it will harm you for sure. 

ME: It's also possible to be in a hungry lion's cage without being eaten, but the odds aren't great. Currently it's estimated that about 20% of infections become Long Covid. It hibernates in the body and can later attack the brain or heart or pancreas. People get better from acute Covid, definitely, but when people first got HIV, it was just like a flu, then they all got better, then 5 or 10 years later, they ended up with AIDS. If you knew that 20%, or 1 in 5, car trips ended with a serious disability, wouldn't you take every possible precaution to avoid an accident? You likely already drive with a seatbelt and air bags and follow the rules of the road because of the dangers, yet Covid still kills more people than traffic collisions. So I might get lucky, absolutely, but a 1 in 5 risk is higher than I'm willing to take with my brain.  

HER: But we could all have cancerous cells in our body, hibernating, able to harm us at any time.

ME: Sure, but wouldn't you want to prevent having them if you could??

HER: Yes, but have you spent any time scrutinizing the mask studies? [I think she was about to argue that masks don't work anyway, which wouldn't have at all convinced me to go to class.]

ME: Yup! And N95s work well to reduce transmission, but one-way masking only goes so far. If everyone in the room wore an N95 (which they won't - so far I can only convince any of them to try a surgical mask), I'd have less than a 1% chance of catching it, but I have at least a 30% chance when it's just me in a mask in a room for seven solid hours with people coughing and the CO2 over 1400 ppm (500 is the goal). And it's not just about my health. I find it painful to watch people - across a room or even on a video - talking together, unmasked, one of them coughing in the other's face. It kills me to see it, knowing the virus could be deadly for that person. It's like watching someone get beat up. I have to look away.

HER: Oh, you're hyperaware of this. That's PTSD on top of anxiety! 

ME: Sure! Add that to the form too! 

Gotta keep my eyes on the prize! It's crazy making to have to get an assessment that says that avoiding a very real danger is considered a mental illness, but it will (with any luck) make it so that I can finish my degree without attending class in person, thereby preventing a disability that would require further accommodations. 

She started telling me of the hardships she's faced being unable to wear a mask during the mandates; they're too suffocating for her, and she has a 5G repeller and a de-ionizer that she wears at all times instead. I sympathized with the difficulties she's faced (I'm not being remotely sarcastic - this sucks for all of us!), and I told her I hope her ear infection and eye infections clear up soon. Meanwhile, in the back of my mind, I was busy calculating all the potential problems that could be caused if I have an official diagnosis of a mental illness and whether or not I really want to pursue this any further. 

I just want to learn some stuff in order to be able to help other people cope with life right now. There shouldn't be any hoops to jump through to access education. We all learn differently, yet suddenly there are new rigid rules around how people have to prove their learning - the physical presence (even just silent presence) appears to be the criterion that separates therapists who are capable from those who are incompetent. Maybe that's why there are therapists out there hawking 5G bullshit! 

The decisions to be made all hinge on whether or not the assessors thinks SARS-CoV-2 is a significant threat to our health. If it's potentially present and harmful, then I should be able to learn remotely due to a very real danger in a classroom with inadequate mitigations (one small HEPA in a corner at a time with severely high infection rates and hospitals going into code red mode - no available ambulances). If it's not potentially present or harmful, then I should be able to learn remotely due to a profound perception of danger (aka an anxiety disorder). 

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