Northwest Association of College & University Housing Officers

Will We Listen

By Erica Barton

I sit at my dining room table, participating in a meeting over Zoom. My colleague is sharing her screen, scrolling through a document on a shared drive, outlining the tasks for an upcoming project. Sounds typical, for our current pandemic reality, right? As a woman with a visual disability, the pandemic has brought equal opportunity. Pre-coronavirus, I would have sat in a meeting room, while colleagues looked at the shared screen mounted on a wall, hoping for enough verbal cues that I could follow along, as my sighted colleagues consumed the visual information completely unaware of the visual privilege. Now, I sit in front of my laptop, my face inches from the screen, using assistive technology, and for the first time, I have equal access to visual information.

According to the National Organization on Disability, “only one third of Americans with disabilities are employed although two-thirds of these unemployed workers would prefer to be employed.” (Wooten & James, 2005). While the pandemic has forced remote work for many, Caleb Keiser, in their article How Remote Work Impacts Employees with Disabilities notes, “Remote work makes work more accessible for one of the most underserved groups of people in America.” Despite the equal access inherent in remote work, Robyn Powell, a disability rights advocate and attorney, noted that remote work and school have historically been denied as a reasonable accommodation for individuals with disabilities. “Now that non-disabled people have no choice but to go to work from home and go to school from home, all of a sudden; it is reasonable.” (KUOW interview, May, 2020)

For as much equal opportunity that remote work brings, our forced physical distancing pandemic reality has also surfaced a common phenomenon- Zoom fatigue. A quick google search for “Zoom fatigue” will yield countless articles explaining the phenomenon and how to combat it. Most of the items assume an unnamed perspective- able-bodied privilege. Maxfield Sparrow, shares in their April 24, 2020 article Zoom Fatigue: A Taste of the Autistic Experience, that zoom is “leveling the social playing field for Autistic individuals.” Sparrow notes that many explanations for zoom fatigue i.e., having to work harder to “read” non-verbal communication, the increased pressure of being watched, etc.  are the daily lived experience of individuals on the Autism spectrum.

For as many explanations of zoom fatigue, there are similar debates of “to video” or “not to video.” According to Diana Shi in their July, 2020 article When is it ok to you’re your video off in a zoom meeting? “Keeping your video on, as awkward as it may feel, fosters connection while working remotely.” However, how much of one’s face do you need to see, to feel that sense of “connection?” For me, to see my screen, my face needs to be inches from it, resulting in my shiny white forehead and perhaps my eyebrows visible on camera. If I back up, so colleagues can see my face, I give up my visual access. Do I compromise my equal access to facilitate “connection?” For me to see you in a Zoom meeting, you have to accept only seeing my graying hairline.

After attending the ACUHO-I Virtual Summit (way to go ACUHO-I for a meaningful pivot), I realized that I had taken more away from the Virtual Summit than from any other ACUHO-I conference. The difference- I had access to the same visual content as my sighted colleagues.  I did not sit in session after session frustrated over a lack of universal design. While I was rejoicing in equal access, I heard colleagues lamenting the  loss of the face-to-face experience, and I couldn’t help but feel the sharp dagger of able-bodied privilege, in the “woe is us, this virtual thing is just not the same.” Absolutely! It is not the same! As a woman with a disability, what was new was a feeling of belonging. For the first time at an ACUHO-I conference, I had equal access. For the first time, I belonged.

As protestors continue to take to the streets trying to convince America that Black lives matter, a familiar chorus in response is change takes time. Be patient. Change takes time. Whose comfort is centered with the call for patience? Who benefits from that patience? White bodies or Bland and Brown bodies? We have collectively demonstrated the capacity to make dramatic changes in the blink of an eye. As Powell notes, what had been previously denied as a reasonable accommodation for individuals with disabilities, is in the blink of an eye now reasonable- not because it was the right thing to do for equal opportunity, but because it was needed for the able-bodied majority.

As we tentatively make steps towards “re-opening” campuses, how do we listen critically to the pandemic’s messages? How do we continue to demonstrate our proven ability to make swift change, as opposed to settling back into our routines of “change takes time?” How do we de-center privileged perspectives to make room for traditionally marginalized voices? How do we develop empathy to consider our “zoom fatigue” might be what some students and colleagues experience every day as they navigate with a disability? How do we let go of our post-conference happy hours, to prioritize equal opportunity? The ACUHO-I Core Competencies indicate that we should all be able to assess the impact of the dominant culture in our campus communities. That assessment is on full display right now, but will we listen?

Wooten, L. P., & James, E. H. (2005). Challenges of organizational learning: perpetuation of discrimination against employees with disabilities. Behavioral Sciences & the Law, 23(1), 123-141. doi:10.1002/bsl.630

Picture of Erica in a life jacket smiling on a lake or river Erica Barton has been a housing practitioner since 2003, spending many years in Residential Life and in 2019 transitioned into Human Resources, where she focuses on organizational learning and development. Erica is currently pursuing a doctoral degree from Northeastern University where she is doing research on how white supremacy cultural norms impact organizational learning. Erica lives with her wife and four cats in Burien, Washington on land she acknowledges as stolen from the Duwamish and Muckleshoot Peoples by white settlers in the early 1800s. Erica finds joy being on the beautiful waters of the Puget Sound, painting, baking, reading, writing and engaging in meaningful conversation with heart.

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