THE FIRST FEW MINUTES of every virtual meeting are awkward. Someone inevitably shows up late, leading to stilted small talk, uncomfortable silences and lots of waiting for everyone to finally sign on and for the real discussion to finally begin.
For many people, though, that awkwardness has marked new opportunity, as our overnight shift to virtual work and schooling due to the coronavirus pandemic has unleashed untapped potential into our society. People living with disabilities or complex medical conditions have been waiting for this moment for years. Now, it’s finally here – not because society chose to provide this unprecedented level of accessibility, but because it was forced to.
It’s important to recognize that this expanded virtual world, though it may bring some challenges, has created a more inclusive environment in multiple arenas. And as schools, universities and workplaces across the world come to grips with the looming decision to resume in-person operations or stay virtual, those decisions must continue to include accessibility for people who had previously been denied it.
Just last week, I spent the morning in class and then called into a health care conference that featured industry and policy leaders from all over the world. I did it from the comfort of my desk chair in Hanover, New Hampshire, all while I was sucking down nebulized medication to treat the chronic infection living in my lungs.
I am both a graduate student and patient leader living with cystic fibrosis, a complex medical condition that requires arduous and active care cycles every morning and evening. The most disruptive aspect of life that comes with cystic fibrosis is the amount of time we spend caring for the condition. Time is stolen from us in the form of expected years of life, but the condition also clutters our days with treatment routines and, in the worst cases, days and weeks spent inside the hospital. For those of us who have lived with advanced lung disease, the thought of going to school or working full time is a matter of piling those responsibilities onto another full-time job – surviving.
I think back to my undergrad years at Boston College. It was one of the best but most challenging times of my life. My rapidly declining health often forced me home to treat a new complication. In the most extreme instance, I had to finish my freshman year in absentia.
That time in my life 10 years ago is proving to be a strange parallel to my time now in business school. In those days, technology hadn’t yet provided me with the opportunities I have in this remote environment. Instead of the carbon copy of the classroom I and everyone else in my class are offered today, I had to work with each professor individually to figure out creative ways to complete their courses.
Today, my life looks a lot different. Before the coronavirus took over our world, my health rapidly improved thanks to a long-awaited medical breakthrough. But my days of living with critical illness have provided me with the perspective to know that we have countless people living among us who are forced to miss out on the very best opportunities life has to offer. Physical or intellectual maladies can limit a person’s potential to move up in a company or into higher education. Across the globe, there are people, who – just like me – have had to make employment and educational choices based on the level of accessibility offered.
For the better part of my 20s, I couldn’t have imagined going back to school. The thought of having to risk regularly missing class thanks to my declining health is something I already had put myself through once, and I was unwilling to do it again. It took a once-in-a-generation medical miracle to urge me back into academia. As I told my parents when I was accepted into Dartmouth College’s graduate program, I finally had the opportunity to reinvent myself and invest in my future.
We now live in a world where that wait probably would not have to happen. This virtual world is a great equalizer. It’s going to allow the homebound college student living with a complex medical condition access to the same lecture hall as hundreds of incoming freshmen at an elite university. Better yet, that homebound student will be conferred the same degree she would have received had she been on campus. This new world also is going to allow the brilliant programmer who had to leave the workforce because of a sudden onset illness to rejoin the economy, which increasingly is just a video call away.
The virtual environment is inspiring because it feels safer. I am welcoming greater responsibilities because I don’t have to lose time in the day to my health. I took on a heavier class load this spring than I would have otherwise taken – a far cry from my undergrad days when I had to do the opposite. I also have been able to spend more time tending to my health, planning my future with my fianceé and collaborating with other cystic fibrosis advocates about helping our patient population make it through this pandemic.
Although I’m in school for a few years, my cystic fibrosis has not stopped, and maybe that’s the biggest lesson I have learned all year. Our disabilities are not going away after COVID-19, and neither should this new, leveled playing field.
Yes, I do miss being on campus and walking the halls among crowds of my peers, but I can’t help but see the single most important benefit of this way of life: inclusivity. As a society, we have put the virtual world to the test, and it works. This new era needs to be the norm, even after this pandemic finally comes to an end.
Source : U.S News