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UCLA Refuses to Keep Disabled Students Safe

UCLA’s Disabled Student Union asks for COVID-19 protections, is ignored.

Members of UCLA's Disabled Student Union hold a protest on October 8, 2021 outside of the campus's Royce Hall.
Members of UCLA’s Disabled Student Union demonstrate outside Royce Hall. (UCLA DSU)

Nestled against the hills of West Los Angeles, the nation’s top public university churns out a steady stream of Nobel Prize winners, media icons, world-class researchers — and more recently, COVID-19 infections. While students learn online for the first two weeks of the term, UCLA athletics opens its stadiums to thousands of spectators. Administrators plan a return to in-person instruction for January 31 amid record case numbers in Los Angeles, increased hospitalizations, and outcry from disability advocates. We urge UCLA to immediately and permanently implement remote learning options that allow students to access their education both in person and remotely.

Since August, the Disabled Student Union has openly advocated for remote learning to be made available to any student that may need it. Even after remote learning last year, UCLA administration continued to tell student advocates that these options would take too long and too much money to implement. Even if this were true — and the temporary current plans for remote access indicate otherwise — such factors do not excuse an inaccessible education that violates our civil rights. Time and financial constraints disappear only when our non-disabled peers are impacted. As of this publication, our petition has garnered nearly 30,000 signatures in support of access to remote education. Despite this staggering display of support, UCLA refuses to implement remote learning options, thereby continuing to harm and ignore their community.  

On October 8, 2021, we organized the largest UC-wide disability-specific movement since the ADA/504 sit-ins. Hundreds gathered over Zoom and in front of Royce Hall to demand hybrid learning options. The protest garnered support from students, faculty, TA union UAW-2865, and even famed disability rights activists Jim LeBrecht, Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, and Leroy F. Moore Jr. Despite this staggering display of support, UCLA refuses to implement remote learning options.

Filmmaker and disability rights activist Jim LeBrecht speaks via video conference at the Disabled Student Union protest on October 8, 2021.
Filmmaker Jim LeBrecht speaks remotely at the DSU protest outside of Royce Hall. (UCLA DSU)

UCLA’s administration has cited academic freedom as a reason for not being able to mandate professors to record their lectures and offer multiple learning modalities. But the Faculty Code of Conduct also lists “discrimination, including harassment, against a student … for reasons of … physical or mental disability, medical condition (cancer-related or genetic characteristics), genetic information (including family medical history)” and “arbitrary denial of access to instruction” as unacceptable conduct. Furthermore, according to UCLA’s Faculty Code of Conduct, faculty have a right to “free inquiry, and exchange of ideas,” “and “enjoyment of constitutionally protected freedom of expression.” These rights do not prevent the university from mandating that faculty offer remote access to course material in order to fully include students with disabilities. In fact, UCLA is not following its own plans for pivoting to hybrid instruction when the university meets its own criteria for the “severe” level that warrants fully remote instruction. 

We are not asking for remote-only instruction. It is important to note that some students, especially those in performance-based academic programs, benefit from in-person learning. Thus, hybrid learning is the only way to truly meet the needs of as many students, staff, and faculty as possible. We are advocating for giving students and employees the agency and option in their education (which students pay for) to attend classes remotely if they deem it unsafe to attend in person. Forcing in-person instruction also vastly increases the likelihood of a campus services worker coming into contact with an infected person.

It’s past due for universities like UCLA to invest in dual modes of learning. We are stuck in a cycle of reopening prematurely and closing when surges inevitably occur. Hybrid learning for all courses ends this cycle by allowing for seamless transition under any circumstances. Professor tested positive but can still teach? They switch to just Zoom. Half the class is sick? They can follow along online while others remain in class. Preparing for the worst is not a surrender; it is planned resilience. 

Hybrid learning would allow high-risk people to learn or teach without endangering themselves and others. The administration may argue that the accommodations system addresses this need. In reality, many students and faculty cannot access accommodations due to medical discrimination, prohibitive costs, or administrative burden. Additionally, students and workers are often undiagnosed or have conditions that are not recognized as high-risk by the CDC. Others are caretakers of high-risk family, but UCLA explicitly disallows accommodations for caretakers; this prevents parenting students and instructors from making the best decisions for their health. Commuter students without access to a car can learn from home if they feel unsafe taking public transit. No one should have to choose between their safety and their education or career. Remote access is the only way to ensure we can learn and work in safe conditions. 

Students wearing face masks participate at the protest. One with glasses holds a sign that reads "Dear Admin, what's the point of being #1 if you won't keep us safe?"
Students hold signs questioning university administration at a protest. (UCLA DSU)

Public health experts and disability rights advocates have repeatedly warned that the pandemic has worsened in part due to a premature “return to normal.” Studies show that non-pharmacological measures — like remote learning options — are most effective at containment. Vaccines are useful for reducing spread and keeping people out of hospitals and morgues; they are not to be used as a main intervention, especially in congregate settings like universities. This is especially true in light of decreased effectiveness of vaccine and antibody treatment against the omicron variant, the wide variation in vaccination dates among Bruins, and a lack of plans for vaccinated people who test positive. Good public health decisions are made to be proactive, not retroactive.

Due to the woefully inadequate, unscientific COVID guidelines implemented by UCLA last fall, over 1,400 confirmed cases of COVID-19 have been reported since September 13, the fall quarter move-in date. This is just a few hundred cases fewer than the amount of cases reported between March 2020 and September 2021. In just the first week of January, UCLA saw over 1,200 confirmed cases. This is an unacceptable number of cases. We also do not know how many actual cases there have been, because of UCLA’s history of insufficient testing and poorly organized, inconsistent data on community case numbers.

As of January 27, UCLA’s COVID-19 dashboard is four days behind on case reports. The university also changed their testing policy to exempt students from weekly testing for 90 days after infection; they failed to require an antigen test in the place of a PCR for these cases. This policy may have made sense for previous variants, but the omicron variant evades immunity to such a degree that reinfection is possible. Without accurate and up-to-date information, our community cannot make informed decisions about our health. 

What we do know is that Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center is running out of inpatient and ICU beds, and that students are already reporting that there is no room left in UCLA isolation housing. Forty thousand people descending on a community with mind-boggling case numbers is already irresponsible. Add in poorly ventilated lecture halls, college parties, cramped dorms, inadequate testing protocols, and unenforced masking policies — we have a bona fide catastrophe.

UCLA has now updated their policy to require all students and faculty to test once per week, considering the increased transmissibility of the new omicron variant, but that is still insufficient. We have no idea how many of these 1,400 students and workers have been forced to drop classes, drop out of their degree program, been fired from their jobs, been temporarily or permanently disabled, or even killed as a result of UCLA’s negligence. We have no idea how many workers in the surrounding community have been infected as a result of serving UCLA students and faculty. These case numbers also fail to include data on infected family members who could not avoid exposure because of UCLA’s refusal to allow professors to conduct courses remotely to keep their families safe. 

How many people will UCLA maim or kill to maintain a false sense of normalcy? 

In order to prevent future outbreaks, protect the disabled community, and provide a more sustainable model for our education, UCLA must immediately and permanently implement remote access options.

We ask UCLA: What is the point of being #1 if you won’t keep us safe?