Student voices: Webcams are a barrier to access.

This post is a lightly edited comment from a previous blog post in which I recommended that faculty find ways of engaging students that don’t require the use of cameras. This is especially important for online classes that aren’t advertised as synchronous and requiring cameras and for any class that is scheduled as in-person but switches to online. When students sign up for a class, they are not inviting you into their homes, which they often share with others, and that is often the only place a student can safely and securely access the internet during the pandemic. In response, a student shared a bit of her own story, which I’m amplifying by sharing here, edited lightly.

As a person with autism, who used to be on the Dean’s List at my university, I have seen my grades drop dramatically since the COVID-19 rush to move courses primarily online. I can handle the asynchronous ones more or less, but I just freeze up completely in front of a webcam, feeling like I’m being watched, seeing a million other faces in little windows staring at me… and my school doesn’t care. I’ve tried asking the professors for alternative accommodations, like writing an essay in lieu of a Zoom presentation, but nope, they want every student on a webcam for synchronous lectures and presentations. I’ve already dropped a number of classes, and I’m considering dropping out of school or taking a gap year if this continues. I’ve never really faced challenges at school due to my autism that deterred my learning, but all it took was COVID-19 to change that. I do wish that professors would be more understanding that webcam usage is not merely a minor inconvenience. For some of us living with mental disabilities, being forced to use a webcam in order to complete our courses is so daunting that we simply can’t do it. To me, being on a webcam for any reason is like being forced to look directly into a very bright light, or having somebody wave something threatening in your face, like a sharp object. I developed a bit of a drinking problem this semester as a result; I never even liked alcohol, but then I found that it was easier to be drunk on a webcam than sober, even though I still hated the experience.

It’s different if you sign up for courses where straight from the get-go, you’re aware that synchronous webcam work will be required, but the students at my school weren’t told ahead of time. It was also stated on the school’s website that professors would have to accommodate for disabled students, and so most of us autistic students just thought our professors would be understanding. Instead, it was the exact opposite. There are a lot of professors who seem to think that webcams are the wave of the future and we should all just be enthusiastically grabbing on. They don’t seem to realize what a barrier it is to those of us who are disabled.

You might think that you know which of your students would struggle with a webcam, but it’s actually none of your business WHY a student might not be able to use a webcam. In some cases, even telling you is dangerous, since the reason might be because undocumented residents live in their home or because someone in the home is engaging in illegal activities beyond the student’s control. Further, students who might not have faced an obstacle when learning in person might face one now, but they didn’t get authentication of their disability through the disability services office earlier since, after all, they weren’t experiencing a barrier.

Like what you read here? Make a donation to the JED Foundation, to your local college’s support group for students with disabilities or mental illness, or directly to a college student in need.

Above, a bright light on a dark background. Photo by Trevin Rudy on Unsplash

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