To prevent the spread of the coronavirus, Americans have been instructed to stand six feet away from others, wear masks and wash their hands frequently.
Devin Adams, however, is unable to judge how far six feet is.
“Obviously I want to follow social distancing [guidelines],” Adams (junior-rehabilitation and human services) said. “But sometimes I might unintentionally go closer than that to someone.”
Adams, who is partially blind, has to take people with her when she goes to the grocery store because she can’t read the arrows on the floor intending to guide foot traffic.
Adams also can’t tell whether people around her are wearing masks, which she said makes her uncomfortable.
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Just as there are many different ways one can be disabled, the coronavirus has had a wide and varied effect on the lives of Penn State students with disabilities.
When Cassandra Kizis first moved back home with her family in March when Penn State moved its semester online, her life was just like most college students’ lives at the time.
However, when she came back to Penn State for the fall semester, she started to notice her hearing impairment affected her more than usual.
When Kizis (senior-geography and political science) tries to have a conversation with someone wearing a mask, it’s often hard for her to understand what they’re saying.
Masks muffle people’s voices and make it impossible to read lips, she said, and the problems become more pronounced because she has to stand six feet away from whoever she’s talking to.
“But luckily people have been very considerate,” Kizis said. “And when I tell them I'm having a hard time hearing because of the mask wearing, they've been [able to] project their voices more and help me out.”
For this reason, Kizis prefers taking online classes.
People don’t need to wear masks, and she can turn the volume on her laptop up or down as she needs.
Percy Sill, who has autism and ADHD, didn’t return to his hometown when classes went online last semester, and has spent the last nine months living alone on campus.
People with autism often engage in “stimming,” self-stimulating behaviors that usually yield a lot of sensory input.
For Sill (sophomore-digital art and media design) this looks like playing with fidget toys, waving his hands around and repeating phrases and noises.
However, Sill said he sometimes feels pressured to hide these behaviors when he’s around others.
Becoming more comfortable with stimming, by himself and around others, is “one of the few positive things” to come out of the coronavirus quarantine, Sill said.
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His ADHD, on the other hand, was a profoundly negative thing for Sill.
Sill’s classes during the spring and summer were mostly taught asynchronously, and he said the lack of routine made it hard for him to complete his classwork.
“It was very difficult for me to get stuff done during the time and just being alone and having no one to bounce off of, if that makes sense,” Sill said. “[No one] to look out for me.”
Sill has depression and anxiety, which are very common in individuals with autism and ADHD, and said the isolation of the pandemic had a severe negative impact on his mental health.
“There was a point of the summer where my depression was just so bad I could barely — all I could do was, like, shower and eat. And then I would get back in bed,” Sill said. "It's been really difficult, and even just little things that stacked up on each other about living alone — I don’t know, it’s just difficult.”
Meanwhile, for some, coronavirus regulations have made their lives easier.
Amy Mook has transverse myelitis, which impacts her ability to walk.
Although the transition to remote learning was stressful and difficult for Mook at first, she thoroughly prefers online classes.
Mook (senior-biology) usually isn’t able to take back-to-back classes and was worried that she wouldn’t be able to take some graduation requirements this semester.
Now that the university is mostly remote, taking back-to-back classes is as simple as closing and opening a Zoom window.
“I wouldn't be able to have that freedom if the pandemic wouldn't have happened,” Mook said.
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Mook has also enjoyed the fact that many businesses have put more services online and expanded their delivery options due to coronavirus mitigation efforts.
“Whereas [before the pandemic] I would have to worry about getting into buildings and how far I'd have to walk to do certain experiences, a lot of those sort of obstacles that are more physical are now online,” Mook said. “That's really expanded the resources that are available to me.”
Mook noted that people with other disabilities have had a much more challenging pandemic experience.
Stress and isolation can impact people’s health, and many disabled people are immunocompromised, Mook said.
“The unknown of everything has definitely put a weight on me,” Mook said. “[I need] to really make sure that I'm taking care of myself, but other people may not have access to services.”
Adjusting to the pandemic looks different for everyone. For some people, accommodations can be made, but others have to be patient.
For Adams, coping with the pandemic means being open about her needs.
Adams' blindness is so severe that she has a white cane, but she usually avoids using it.
She’s been considering using it more now so people know to distance themselves from her if she’s not following social distancing guidelines.
“I guess [coping means] just being more willing to ask for help when I need it,” Adams said. “So if there's marked off seats in the classroom or something like that, saying to the professor, ‘I can't see which seats we’re allowed to sit in and which seats we’re not.’”
Kizis, who is the president of Penn State’s Access Club, said it’s important that as Penn State tries to adjust to the pandemic, administrators consult students with intellectual and physical disabilities to make sure that they can adjust to the technology and get the support they need.
Kizis said the Student Disability Resources office has contacted her and other students with disabilities to make sure they have proper accommodations.
“For example, they sent me an email saying that if I had in-person classes, they have clear masks to give professors so you could see their lips,” Kizis said. “That's really great that they have access to that and they can distribute that to students.”
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However, Kizis said SDR cannot carry the entire university, and it’s important that individual departments also work to accommodate students with disabilities.
Adams said she hopes to eventually resume life as it was before the pandemic. She said she was used to knowing what she needed to do to get around, and the pandemic has made everything uncertain.
“I was studying abroad in the spring semester. I was traveling around Europe. I took a trip from Ireland to the [United Kingdom] for a weekend, completely by myself,” Adams said. “Now, I'm nervous to do simple things. Just because it's so different and there's so much more visual stuff that I could miss. So that's kind of been hard. I feel like I'm just more timid about the things I'm doing, and I feel a little less independent.”
Sill said although the coronavirus has been difficult, he appreciated the strides he’s made toward accepting his autism.
Previously, when Sill would have breakdowns as a result of his autism, he said he “would not let [himself] experience them.”
During the pandemic, he said he’s been having them more frequently.
“I don’t know if it was because I was having a hard time so I had them more often, or it was just [that] I was just letting myself have them because I was alone and there was nobody to judge me, but I did have a lot more breakdowns,” Sill said. “It sounds bad, but it's kind of a good thing, I don’t know.”
Mook said she has been hoping to do a lot for her career through telework, and the prevalence of people working from home during the pandemic showed her it’s a possibility.
Mook said she hopes in the future Penn State and other institutions will continue the flexibility students have had during remote learning.
“Before, like, if I was having a bad day, I am able to walk some stairs,” Mook said. “However, a lot of our buildings, the lecture halls [for example] have some pretty steep stairs. I know that I've expressed this concern to many, that some days I just can't do those stairs, and if you sit in the back, it's really loud.”
Mook said she hopes when the pandemic is over she will still have the option to sometimes attend classes online if she needs to.
“I really do feel for everyone that's struggling across the board,” Mook said. “But I am excited for the future.”