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Column: Disabled people are experts on our own health

A ramp leads to the Old Well on Monday, Jan. 10, 2022.

Campus administration’s response to the surging omicron variant can only be described as weak.

Instead of demonstrating actual leadership, the Chancellor has chosen to delegate his responsibilities to school deans, announcing in a Dec. 31 email that any temporary changes to modes of instruction would be made at the discretion of individual deans.

The email noted that “some students may be delayed in their return to campus,” both acknowledging and promptly erasing students at high risk of severe symptoms, immunocompromised students, students with young children, students who live with or care for older people, students who live with anyone in the aforementioned categories and many others.

Now, the deans of individual schools are left to determine what — if any — changes would be made to course formats so that “some students,” like me, can actually attend our classes.

The leadership of the law school promptly followed suit with a follow-up email to law students. They too, would be abdicating their responsibilities by once again delegating the decision to hold classes remotely for the start of the semester to individual professors.

If that sounds like a terrible idea, you are not mistaken. 

Now, the law school will be partially remote and partially in-person for the start of the semester, except nobody knows exactly which parts are which. Some remote classes will possibly be held back to back with in-person ones. Some will start in-person and go remote later. Already, at least one professor has tested positive after announcing their intention to hold in-person lectures. Thankfully, that class went remote.

Law students immediately criticized this policy, with a coalition of student organizations sending a letter ahead of the start of the spring semester to UNC School of Law administration, faculty and staff, urging them to hold all classes remotely for at least the first few weeks of the semester. The signatories — who include UNC’s National Lawyers Guild, Black Law Students Association, Lambda Law Students Association, Hispanic/Latino Law Students' Association, Asian American Law Students Association and Student Bar Association — point to similar measures being taken at law schools like Duke, Harvard and UCLA.

School of Law Dean Martin Brinkley responded in another letter a day later, arguing that this policy leaves each professor able to adapt their courses to their own pedagogical preferences. He says this is a decision rooted in “educational values,” and that he cannot make his own public health assessment for the law school.

“None of us (is) in a position to substitute our judgment for that of public health experts and physicians,” he writes of his leadership team in the law school and makes reference to experts presumably consulted by University administration.

N.C. Policy Watch recently reported that UNC epidemiologists projected thousands of new infections at the start of the semester. But the truly insidious idea central to Brinkley's letter is that the law school simply cannot make decisions for itself in the face of almighty experts.

This is not just terrible legal and academic advice — legal careers and academic advances are built on the reality that experts can be and are often wrong — but it’s also incredibly harmful to disabled people and students who are constantly having to make decisions for ourselves in the face of “expert” guidance.

If Brinkley wants to understand the public health impacts of the omicron variant on the law school, he need look no further than its disabled students. Disabled people have consistently predicted problems and advocated for solutions throughout the pandemic, yet we have been ignored.

At the onset, disabled people knew that we needed widespread testing to avoid transmission, that our healthcare infrastructure and social safety nets were not enough and that we cannot rely on personal responsibility to vaccinate the public when systemic barriers exist. Even now, disabled people are pointing to the challenges ahead of adapting our social safety nets in a future where many COVID-19 survivors will be left unable to work due to “long COVID."

Many of the advances we’ve made for accessibility became key during the pandemic, from the high-tech to the seemingly mundane. Speech-to-text transcription was a critical development in assistive technology that is incredibly helpful for remote education and disabled people invested in grocery deliveries long before lockdowns.

As social media icon and disability justice advocate Imani Barbarin said in a recent tweet, “I don’t think any one of you have ever once asked yourselves, ‘What do disabled people already know that we don’t know?’”

Instead of asking this question, Brinkley decided to let disabled students — and others — rot on the vine, unsure if we’ll be able to actually participate in our classes or be reduced to watching video-taped recordings, straining to hear the classroom discussion.

In his letter, he acknowledges that some students will disagree with this “educational” decision. But this choice spits in the face of the time-honored Socratic method, eliminates students’ ability to ask questions during class discussions and makes a mockery of the purported fairness underlying the school’s GPA ranking system.

As a high-risk student, my professors have offered to not penalize me if I need to view class recordings remotely. After considerable pressure from students, the school has even agreed to have certain law school courses be held remotely, at least through Jan. 14. This makes me luckier than many second and third-year students who must attend some classes in person nonetheless. 

But after that date we can expect nothing but limbo. While theoretically, each of our professors could independently make the decision to reassess on a week-by-week basis and choose never to go back to in-person instruction, that is difficult to expect and ridiculous to assume.

However decisive students' responses to the law school's policy have been, we — and our professors — are still left unsure how to plan for the rest of the spring.

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Students who are currently remote will eventually be forced back to campus, a reality that hangs over classroom discussions. Inevitably, “some students” will be left behind when it happens and asked to make difficult choices on their own. 

Many of us understand the benefits of in-person learning and why so many want to find it. Most of us also aren’t sure when exactly it will be safe for us to return to campus. But we know it’s not right now.

Brinkley writes that he cannot substitute his judgment with that of a health expert, but I am an expert on my own health and my own needs. My classmates are experts in the health and needs of themselves and their families.

At the end of the day, I get the same impression from the law school that I get from my doctors, the “experts” I’m expected to trust with my life. I’m assumed to be disposable because I’m disabled. My neurologist assumed I was another lazy twenty-something without any ambition. Another told me there was “no point” in treating me. My primary care physician even assumed I stopped dating when I became disabled.

I’ve laughed off and disproved countless assumptions people have made about me. I won’t lie — sometimes it even helps to be seen as an underdog or a secret weapon. But now, I’m assumed to add so little to my classes that it is perfectly acceptable when I’m not really a part of them.

I see campus opening back up and administrators sticking their heads in the sand, and the only decision being delegated to me is whether or not I risk my life to attend my classes. That’s a difficult decision to make.

Editor's Note: Nicholas Li-wen Hatcher is on the board of UNC's National Lawyers Guild, a signatory on the letter to School of Law administration regarding spring semester operations.

@hatcherade |