An Open Letter to Members of HSS
from Jaipreet Virdi, University of Delaware
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we host conferences and teach our classes. The virtual Zoom World has replaced lecture halls and event stages, and frustrations with excessive screen time notwithstanding, these virtual events have made scholarship accessible in ways that they have not always been before COVID-19. Space has been made for scholars who have long struggled to participate in academic and public events, notably those whose disabled body-minds cannot work under the conventional standards of academia.
One thing that has been consistently, universally learned in this pandemic, is that access is only made possible when it benefits able-bodied workers. Disabled people have long campaigned for remote access to work and learning, but have routinely been denied for reasons of impracticability and expense. Yet COVID-19 brought unprecedented accommodations, enabling disabled scholars and those regularly excluded from academic spaces to benefit and thrive from this access. But not all digital spaces are equitable. Disabled people will be the first to tell you the toll that expectations for “normal” labor performance can have on your body-minds. This “new digital normal” in which we are expected to persevere has exacerbated accessibility challenges that also reflect existing socio-economic, racial, and gender disparities: we regularly refer to “zoom fatigue,” the increased hours spent staring at a screen which results in physiological and mental drainage; we observe spaces that are meant to be accessible, but fail to provide accommodations; and we are becoming increasingly aware of how people of color, especially women, are targeted and doxed by digital trolls.
Crip time requires us to reimagine our expectations of what we can do, and should be expected to do, within a given time; it requires us to rethink about how our expectations of “normalcy” can severely harm or restrict our body-minds. Rather than expecting our body-minds to meet the clock, crip time bends the clock to meet our body-minds. In the Zoom World, most of us operate on crip time. But as Shew explains, the bitter irony is that as disabled hacks and accessible infrastructures have been normalized, we are still in a pandemic in which disabled people are dying from COVID-19 in far greater numbers. Disabled scholar-activists also predict that Long COVID-19 will create the largest group of disabled people since the polio epidemics of the mid-20th century.
I bring this matter to your attention because as vaccination rates increase in the United States and parts of the Global North, we are expected to persevere in our “new normal,” but there is nothing normal, nor sustainable, about working and living through a pandemic. The worsening COVID-19 situation in the Global South has highlighted social, racial, and class disparities, including those within academia. It is difficult to prepare for a “normal” fall semester or organize a conference, when my colleagues in India are losing family and co-workers to COVID-19. As we in the Global North shift towards vaccinated, in-person, spaces, I hope that we do not forget the lessons of the pandemic—particularly the importance of accommodations. We have made significant gains with creating virtual events that can serve as a model for our future collegial spaces, especially for hybrid conferences. In the past year, for instance, I have experimented and tested closed captioning applications for virtual events and shared the report with several organizations and universities. The document, which I update regularly, is available here on the HSS website for anyone to consult. Moreover, disabled scholar-activists have shared documents on accessibility, including the Critical Design Lab’s protocols for disability justice-centered work and teaching, and guidelines by the advocacy organization Rooted in Rights. Let us all work together to widen the circle of scholarship.