Like masks, COVID-19 safety precautions are not ‘One size fits all’

Various masks.
Photo by PIXNIO

By Abbey Umali

Like masks, COVID-19 safety precautions are not ‘One size fits all’

On May 8, President Daniele Struppa revealed the plans to bring Chapman University students back to campus for the fall semester through the “CU Safely Back” initiative. A couple weeks later, Struppa provided more insight on what the safety measures could look like in practice. Students have voiced how fortunate they are to attend a school that is even considering reopening in the fall given Governor Newsom’s recommendations to continue the lockdown, as that is something that students at larger campuses will not have the opportunity to experience. Although I would love nothing more than to return to campus for my senior year, I have some concerns about what this will look like given the number of regulations that will be put in place by the government and the university, but probably not for the reasons you would expect. 

There are approximately 900 students registered with Disability Services at Chapman University, accounting for over 10 percent of the student body. The Director of Disability Services, Jason McAlexander, has been working tirelessly with the rest of his team to ensure that students with disabilities continue to receive the support they need in the midst of the transition to remote learning. They have collaborated with President Struppa, Information Systems & Technology (IS&T), and faculty members to provide resources for accommodated testing, real-time captioning, note-taking services, technological assistance, and the extension on the pass/no pass grading option.

Through a recent email correspondence between McAlexander and myself, he stated, “Although we are in an unprecedented global situation, we are still emotionally and legally committed to accommodating students with disabilities. I think disability services and the University as a whole worked seamlessly together to ensure Chapman continues to be an inclusive environment for students with disabilities. I’m quite proud of that.” 

This flexibility has provided all students – not just those with disabilities – with opportunities to succeed academically under these challenging circumstances. Although I have faith in the care of the administration and the resiliency of the student body, I still have concerns about how these attitudes will extend into our transition back to campus.

It is obviously a massive undertaking for Chapman’s administration to find a solution that can accommodate every student’s needs, especially those who are a part of the disability community. The definition of “disability” is very broad, which means that every disabled person is facing a unique set of challenges as a result of this pandemic. On the one hand, many students with disabilities are concerned about returning to campus – even with safety precautions – because they are at a higher risk of contracting the coronavirus. On the other hand, some of these precautions could cause serious health or mobility issues for other students with disabilities or chronic illnesses. For example, masks could be harmful to individuals with respiratory issues by creating blockages to airways and limiting oxygen access. Those with sensory differences or skin sensitivities could experience irritation or painful abrasions from wearing a face-covering for extended periods of time. Students with claustrophobia could have increased anxiety and panic attacks. People with hearing-impairments who rely on lip-reading will be excluded from conversations and be forced to learn a new method of communication.

Personally, aside from my muscular dystrophy that requires the use of a wheelchair, I have a genetic issue that prevents my body from flushing toxins (including those commonly found in medications, vaccines, synthetic cleaners, etc). Since wearing a mask for an extended time reduces oxygen intake, it increases my chances of being affected by CO2-related illnesses and exposes me to a higher risk of an allergic reaction. In addition, the excess CO2 will exacerbate the fatigue and muscle weakness that I already experience from my physical disability.

Based on various conversations I have had with Chapman faculty, members of the Disability & Accessibility Advisory Group, and my colleagues in the Student Government Association, I am cautiously optimistic it will not become mandated for disabled students to wear masks if it will cause them serious harm. However, one of my fears is that I, along with others who cannot wear masks, will be shamed by those who do not understand our decisions. Even though the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) exempts people with disabilities from wearing masks in public or in stores if it poses a substantial health risk for them, this has not stopped store owners from discriminating against people with disabilities due to their lack of knowledge of the provisions of the ADA. Since Chapman receives federal funding, it is required to comply with the ADA, even as a private school. The recent updates to the “CU Safely Back” initiative had no mention of exemptions for people with disabilities, so the administration will need to be held accountable to protect this group against discrimination as we return to campus in the fall.

Aside from the face-covering issue, the proposed social distancing rules present extra difficulties for students and faculty with disabilities. Given the fact that there is a wide spectrum of mobility, many people with disabilities may need assistance with different tasks that require them to be within 6 feet of another person. This could include assistance with opening doors, moving chairs or other objects out of walkways, retrieving items from out of reach places, personal care routines, and transportation, just to name a few. My concern is that students who need extra help will feel uncomfortable asking for it when they need it because they do not want others to feel like they are being put at risk. Furthermore, if they do receive help, I worry that bystanders will be concerned or judgmental of these actions, as not all disabilities are visible. 

All of this being said, it would be a shame if people pretended to have a disability just to get out of wearing a mask or social distancing. Some have misinterpreted the ADA and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) by claiming to have exemptions in situations where those laws do not apply. I have seen this mentality enough when able-bodied people awkwardly exit an accessible bathroom stall after noticing me, in my wheelchair, patiently waiting for the one stall in the entire bathroom that I can use. This behavior ends up harming the disability community and making it more difficult for us to access the accommodations we need. 

I am in no way asking that Chapman remove social distancing rules or face-covering requirements, because many members of the disability community are immuno-compromised and need those protections. I just want to return to a school where each student’s decision about wearing a mask and social distancing is respected, and made with respect to the lives of others. 

Although the major decisions regarding our return to Chapman in the fall are out of our hands as students, we still have control over how we, as individuals, will respond to the inevitable changes. If you have turned on the news or gone on social media at any point during quarantine, then you have surely seen the division and hatred that people are showing to each other. We have been inundated with negativity, misinformation, and disrespect for the last several months. I do not want us to carry those attitudes with us as we return to Chapman. 

What if each one of us…

  • Paused for a few seconds instead of reacting immediately to someone who appears to be in violation of a safety measure? 
  • Asked respectful questions and started a productive dialogue instead of judging the actions of people we disagree with? 
  • Took personal responsibility for our own health instead of blaming others for not doing it for us? 

There is always more to the story than we know, especially when it comes to the experience of someone with a disability. We need to give others the benefit of the doubt while making sure we are worthy of that same gesture being extended to us.

Abbey Umali is a senior at Chapman University and is double majoring in Psychology and Music with a minor in Disability Studies. She will be serving as the Speaker of Senate and the Crean College Senator for the Student Government Association during the 2020-2021 academic year.

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One thought on “Like masks, COVID-19 safety precautions are not ‘One size fits all’

  1. Dear Abbey,

    Thank you for this article regarding people with disabilities returning to your University. I am also a person with CMT, 74 years old, in a wheelchair and married to a wonderful guy that takes excellent care of me. We are friends with Dave Hutton in Leesburg Florida. He has told me a lot about you and is very proud of your accomplishments. In your article I appreciated your insight into people with disabilities even those that aren’t obvious. I have found people to be very Patient and accommodating to me. Hopefully this will be the case when you go back to school.
    God bless you are you go for your senior year and in the future with your career.

    Hugs and Blessings, Deedie Mitchell

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