Return to Normal Endangers Lives of Disabled Students

“They’re gonna breathe on me!” My mother chuckled as I wailed to her about the lifting of COVID-19 guidelines on campus. I had just finished my most successful semester at Oberlin, primarily completed from my off-campus apartment. Any time I spent on campus was controlled and limited, and I only encountered other students masked and from a distance. With COVID-19 cases on campus thankfully remaining low, it was as close to a comfortable and accessible semester as I’ve ever had. I could attend class from my apartment four out of five days a week. I could take exams online, in a distraction-reduced environment of my choosing, at a time that I could be most functional and productive. Professors were willing to extend deadlines because, all of a sudden, everyone else was struggling too. Sicknesses like the cold and flu, which would usually devastate my immune system for months, weren’t spreading throughout campus.

The spring of 2021 was the first semester at Oberlin that I wasn’t denied my academic accommodations. It was also the first semester on campus in a long time that I wasn’t constantly sick. Despite the pandemic, spring was the first semester that I was allowed to be both disabled and successful. And, seemingly within the blink of an eye, I saw that all wash away. 

The summer semester has been a chilling reminder of what life was like before the widespread accessibility measures that went into place because of COVID-19, with just a few accommodations left for me to cling to in despair. We are returning to normal, but normal is not something I am ever prepared to go back to. I wasn’t ready to go back to packed classrooms. I wasn’t ready to go back to being coughed on. I wasn’t ready to go back to living in fear of catching a cold that will turn into months-long symptoms, or worse, getting COVID-19. It feels like returning to biological warfare.

This is the unfortunate reality for all disabled people as the country continues to act as if COVID-19 is a thing of the past. According to NPR, only 48.8 percent of the U.S. population was fully vaccinated against COVID-19 as of July 23. As a country, we are nowhere near herd immunity. With off-campus travel restrictions and other COVID-19 guidelines lifted, nationwide statistics are now relevant to the Oberlin campus. Now that students are able to move freely throughout the United States, we have to be aware of COVID-19 cases and vaccination rates beyond Oberlin as people travel without mandatory quarantine or masking. On top of this, several variants of COVID-19 have been discovered, notably the Alpha, Beta, Gamma, and Delta variants. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, these variants spread more easily and quickly than the original strain of COVID-19. Between low nationwide vaccination rates, open domestic travel, and new contagious variants, it is a wonder to me that there is virtually no conversation on campus about the current and future realities of COVID-19.

These factors are even more frightening given the limited effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines for immunocompromised people. In a study reported on by the American College of Cardiology, nearly half of the immunocompromised participants, specifically those who have received solid organ transplants, developed no COVID-19 antibodies after two doses of either Pfizer or Moderna vaccines. Many of the most vulnerable of us are even more vulnerable than we had imagined.

The pandemic isn’t over, but the pandemic to disabled people has been watching everyone around us begin to experience a fraction of our everyday reality. And none of you liked feeling that vulnerable. People who are at high risk for COVID-19 are typically at high risk for all other illnesses. While many people lived in fear of COVID-19 over the past year, disabled people have lived and will continue to live in fear for the rest of our lives. 

It has been absolutely heartbreaking and gut-wrenching to watch the consideration of others’ lives disappear with the COVID-19 mandates. I shouldn’t get stares as I walk around campus wearing a mask. I shouldn’t have to beg my professors to allow me to attend classes on Zoom to avoid being coughed on during a pandemic. I shouldn’t have to weigh what I take on next year based on how much I can accomplish while sick. The thought of mandatory in-person classes and activities this fall leaves me feeling nauseated and on the verge of tears. I have been angrier at the sudden shift than I could have imagined. This total disregard for the lives of disabled people is nothing short of genocide.

Please don’t leave my community to die as the pandemic rages on.