This is the second post in the Pandemic Methodologies series. See the introductory post for more information.
By Hannah S. Facknitz and Danielle E. Lorenz
In June, as part of the Pandemic Methodologies Twitter Conference, we wrote about our precarity as disabled graduate students (especially as educators) in Canada during the COVID-19 Pandemic. We wanted to talk about how the expanded vulnerability of disabled people during this pandemic and eugenicist responses to the crisis specifically affected people like us–multiply marginalized, disabled graduate students. Our COVID-19 lives have been brutal, deeply ruptured, and drained by institutions, especially those of higher education. Danielle and I attend separate universities–Alberta and British Columbia, respectively–but our experiences intermingle with and echo each others’ and those of other graduate students in Canada. Both of us are chronically ill, physically disabled, and neurodivergent. Danielle is a first in the family student, working class, and a woman. Hannah is Mad, fat, bisexual, and genderqueer.
The pandemic meant many educators became familiar with assistive technologies like auto captioning or easy-to-read fonts that, on the surface, improved certain disabled peoples’ ability to access certain spaces. Several committees Hannah served on for UBC’s return-to-campus planning adopted a new interest in accessibility approaches, methods, and ideas; incremental shifts that they could see percolating through the academy. This access was imperfect and uneven, however, instituted ad hoc, and only when faculty or administrative interest materialized. Much of the access, too, did nothing to address the structural inequities that explicitly and intentionally exclude disabled people from academia. Even when surface level accessibility was desirable, we discovered that disabled graduate students like us (as well as undergraduates, albeit in different capacities) were/are doing much of the work of educating faculty and staff on access pedagogy, technology, and ethics. It was the most precarious and multiply marginalized graduate students who performed this access labour. The pandemic in higher education was an historic moment that revealed with astonishing clarity the violent, explicit, intentional ableism of academia, and for folks like us–people who couldn’t often muster enough denial or privilege to move through violent institutions–the pandemic was too much.
The pandemic broke me (Hannah speaking). It broke me because I (and Danielle, and our disabled kin) woke up every day to the voices of those for whom foregoing a holiday or wearing a piece of fabric across their face or receiving a safe, effective vaccine was too steep a price to pay for the lives of 4.55 million people around the world. In Canada, 90% of those who died of the COVID-19 infection or its many complications had a “pre-existing condition.”
In crip scholarship, community, and activism, we refuse the eugenic terms “pre-existing condition” or “co-morbidities” and instead claim the dead as our disabled kin. Pre-existing condition is a euphemism deployed to make our deaths acceptable, palatable in a world of politicized public health. For our crip community, our most beloved and vulnerable have been reduced to nameless statistics, part of a mass casualty event.
Previously, we have spoken about the trauma of watching people like us (and unlike us but still belonging to our community) die preventable deaths during this pandemic. We maintain these deaths were political choices made across Canada. Our suffering and death were acceptable losses for the chance for others to mount their “return to normal.” Alberta remains the best example of this, with the Calgary Stampede functioning as the literal dog and pony show that announced the “end” of the pandemic t/here.After what was, for some, a normal summer of travel, gathering, and socializing in large groups, returning to campus in Canada has been chaotic. UBC only implemented its partial vaccine and mask mandates after immense community pressure, and even now, testing, vaccination, and other safety measures promised by the University are only just appearing, an entire month into term. It took until September 29th for UBC to put its promised rapid-testing program for unvaccinated students, faculty, and staff in place.
For Hannah, this was more than enough time to face potentially disastrous consequences. On September 8th, they contracted COVID-19 after attending the 50-person lecture that they TA. This was their second time contracting the virus, despite being double vaxxed, a consequence of a chronically suppressed immune system. She is awaiting BC’s slow roll-out of third doses for critically vulnerable people, only being approved after return-to-campus, revealing an implicit assumption of where critically vulnerable people are expected to exist.
They thought they were doing enough to stay safe. They thought they were protecting herself: She masked, washed their hands (until they bled), and followed public health protocols. They even waded through ableist misinformation thrown at them on Twitter and elsewhere. But now they realize that there was no way she could protect themself with individual behaviour. She needed their community–that is, their employer and educator, the University of British Columbia and its attendant members–to step up and help protect her and others like her.
Similarly, the University of Alberta released its Vaccine Directive on September 29th, the day it came into effect. Though the institution has been sending emails to staff and students regularly, there have been a number of policy changes over the last six or so weeks. Presently, the University is employing an opt-in self-reporting measure to track COVID infection on campus; better than nothing at all, this information does little to reassure us. Staff, faculty, and students have been vocal about their fears of teaching and learning in person, since before the Fall term began.
Predictions made by doctors and academics in Alberta have been actualized: hospital morgues have been over capacity, and there have been shortages of ambulances. On Wednesday September 29th, the province reported 34 deaths the day prior, the highest number since the pandemic began. Doctors have begun implementing triage protocols, meaning, choosing which people are more likely to live, and ultimately, having to select who will die. I (Danielle) immediately think about those with “pre-existing conditions,” and what that means in this horrific reality created by the United Conservative Party.
Tens of thousands of people come to the University of Alberta’s North Campus daily. Some of them are attending or teaching classes. Others are desperately trying to keep people alive at the University of Alberta Hospital. The juxtaposition of these two realities reminds us of the libertarian values underpinning higher education.
UBC and UofA are not alone in the complicated, confusing, and inadequate measures they have put in place in order to politically tip-toe around protecting vulnerable people. McGill, UofT, UVic, and UPEI, among others, have also faced criticism for the measures they have implemented (or not) this Fall.
The work of navigating ad hoc, shifting, inadequate COVID-19 protections from universities is labour that nondisabled or less vulnerable members of Canadian post-secondary institutions do not have to do. There is privilege in being able to trust the decisions of public health and education apparatuses to protect you. Those institutions make decisions with the well-being of nondisabled and other privileged identities in mind, not the well-being of the most vulnerable. It is not our lives that are worth protecting (for many reasons, mostly enmeshed in racial capitalism and settler colonial neoliberalism). This pandemic has revealed how little faith disabled people can safely put in these institutions. Their blatant disregard for disabled lives has created extra labour for disabled academics who must now do our own research, organizing, and planning in order to try to protect ourselves and the people we love in our community/ies.
This is labour we perform on top of the access labour we mentioned above that has extended both my and Danielle’s time-to-completion. Out of necessity and at great cost (financial and otherwise) to ourselves, we have both had to extend our programs as a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic, but specifically the ableism and eugenic violence we encountered from academia throughout this global crisis. The extra time is a result of structural obstructionism, not an unavoidable consequence–no outcome of this pandemic was ever inevitable.
We and other disabled students are already having to labour against the obstructive institution to meet goalposts, navigate bureaucracies, and appease our detractors who obstinately believe we have no place here. These people live in every nook and cranny of academic space.
In many ways, I, Hannah, feel trapped. Trapped by an institution I poured my heart and soul into for many years to receive no ounce of love in return and to then be brutally discarded as an acceptable casualty when profits and politics were at stake. Ironically, though, the pandemic has circumscribed my ability to safely exit academic space with my credential, an essential component of my ability to live and work in Canada as an immigrant. Both Danielle and I now must sink more time and money into academia in order to find an exit that does not wholly destabilize us. We are being forced out while also being held hostage.
How can we possibly do the work of intellectual inquiry central to our degree programs when we are desperate simply to survive this institution? While we are performing the bulk of the access labour (in its many forms) that has kept higher education afloat throughout this crisis? That continues to keep it afloat?
There is an assumption that disabled students have extended time-to-completion averages because we are inherently slower moving–that all things being equal, our bodyminds simply travel the world at a slower pace. This is fundamentally untrue. The problem, in fact, is the clock by which we measure. We appear slower because our ways of being and knowing are irreconcilable and inconceivable to academic models. Academia attempts to reconcile us to its ill-fitting, restrictive, painful (as well as deeply colonial) thinking modes through things like “accommodations” that do not change the structural barriers in place but instead make it our personal responsibility as disabled people to navigate around them. The actual barring structure and its makers (higher education) bear no responsibility.
We are slower than nondisabled students because we must travel further and longer to reach the same markers. Along the way, too, we must perform more work in order to pass through every gate and checkpoint that simply do not exist for nondisabled students. There are not once-a-term program extensions, accommodations negotiations, disabled safety hazards, or out-of-order essential services for most students. Graduate school for all is exploitative. For marginalized graduate students of all kinds, it is especially violent and potentially soul-crushing. But for disabled graduate students, we encounter unique and intentional barriers to our presence, practice, and potential here that extract our labour and knowledge at immense cost to our lives.
Disabled graduate students are enmeshed in an epidemic of invisibilized labour. This pandemic has only exacerbated what was a pre-existing crisis. Universities are, in fact, thieves, stealing our time and labour in order to hide their ongoing violence against us. We perform vital access work that the university claims as its own. Our exploitation hollows us out, lifts our ways of being and knowing that are so vibrant and destabilizing to the institution out of our bones until we are cracked open and unable to continue. So, we leave, because we have taken too much time. We have used too many resources. We have tried too much patience and good will.
We leave and are left traumatized, deeply harmed, and emptied by the extractive industry of higher education.
And so, again, we must take that long time, the “too much time,” to do the unending work of healing.
 In addition to our Pandemic Methodologies presentation in June, we have presented at the Canadian Sociology Association annual conference (“Challenging Academic Ableism By Cripping Pandemic Learning”, May 2021), Inclusion in Higher Education’s Cambridge Workshop (“Cripping pandemic learning in higher education: Observations from two disabled graduate students in Canada”, June 2021), and have a chapter forthcoming in Reading Sociology: Unsettling a Settler Colonial Project & Re/writing Sociological Narratives from Oxford University Press on topics relating to this post.
Hannah Sullivan Facknitz (they/she) is a queer crip graduate student researching the historical ableist violence against the Skwxwú7mesh in early twentieth century British Columbia. They work as an educator and activist in crip pedagogy and ethics.
Danielle E. Lorenz (she/her) is a disabled PhD candidate who researches the always-already existence of settler colonialism in Alberta’s K-12 education system. She is also an Associate Editor of the Canadian Journal of Disability Studies.