Our world as we know it is changing by the second. With such uncertainty in even our day-to-day existence, why would accessibility matter? How could this experience reshape the inclusion of individuals with chronic conditions and disabilities in our everyday lives?
At VCU, we’ve been challenged to rethink and reimagine how we can connect virtually, how we offer programs, activities, and services, and how we do the work we do while ensuring access and accommodation. This opportunity invites us to understand, in the most organic way, the manner in which this unordinary moment in time provides a glimpse of how we can emerge—as one VCU—with a different vision of universal design for learning and accessibility.
Brené Brown writes that "Courage and fear are not mutually exclusive" (Dare to Lead, 2018), and challenges us to look beyond the obvious situation to identify what gets in the way. During this crisis, VCU has done just that in response to mandates for social distancing. As a result, our innovations will impact the future of access and reasonable accommodation for our Ram community.
Imagine: moving every academic course to an online platform in the middle of an academic term within a period of two weeks while ensuring accessibility of content and access for students as well as faculty and instructors. In a unified and strategic effort, the Academic Continuity Committee coordinated by the Office of the Provost and experts in Academic Learning Transformation Lab (ALT Lab) did. This crisis-driven team designed and implemented protocols to port classes, support and educate faculty, foster success for VCU students, as well as address ongoing growth and refinement of this effort via a sustainable trouble-shooting ticketing system. Dr. Brianne Leia Jackson, Senior Instructional Designer, noted that one particular secondary outcome of this effort was that faculty and instructors "who were not otherwise exposed to issues of accessibility are now through a new UDL, universal design for learning, lens," and, she added, "there will be a reshaping of learning" as a result [italics added].
Imagine: operationalizing virtual medical and psychological intervention services, beginning with differential diagnosis and ensuring treatment follow up, using tele-medicine and tele-counseling. Our Health Campus, University Student Health Services and University Counseling Services did. Tele-medicine and tele-counseling consults support a best practice protocol to prevent the spread of the virus. Notably, this intervention pathway creates a new modality for serving those who have chronic conditions and disabilities, removing barriers that might otherwise prevent them from seeking care. Having virtual "access" to a physician or counselor in this way will forever reshape our definition of a "house call."
Imagine: shifting thousands of employees with their essential office and computer equipment to remote work status. Our administrative leadership and Information Technology Services office did. The vast majority of VCU employees now work from home transforming the meaning of "going to work." En masse remote work provides real-time evidence that with earnest intention, clear protocols and supervisory support, telecommuting can be an effective reasonable accommodation for those with documented chronic conditions and disabilities.
Each of these extraordinary efforts by our collective Ram community required identifying and then removing barriers for us all, including those amongst us with chronic conditions and disabilities. Once we are ready to fully emerge from this Covid-19 chrysalis, we will have invariably reshaped our understanding of access and reasonable accommodation in our daily lives. Our challenge in this unordinary moment, then, is to embrace this new world order, continue to innovate and improve accessibility and accommodation, and to ensure that "all people are valued and differences are recognized as an asset" (VCU Core Values). For it is with passion of purpose and recognition of our unique gifts that our VCU community will transcend barriers and cultivate a deeper commitment toward diversity, inclusion and accessibility.
Crystal C. Coombes, LPC, CRP is VCU's University accessibility administrator and serves as the ADA/504 Coordinator.