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July 18, 2023

Note: This post was written in mid-March 2023, shortly after the SCS circulated a survey to members concerning hybrid/virtual options for annual meetings. On Friday, the SCS announced that the 2024 Annual Meeting in Chicago would be entirely in person but allow for individual speakers to deliver talks via Zoom. The SCS noted that the costs of providing a fully hybrid meeting were prohibitively expensive, despite the fact that many members expressed concerns about accessibility and an interest in virtual options. This post should not be construed as a response to that announcement. I do hope that, as the SCS moves forward, the concerns of many of its members over accessibility will be given serious weight. This blog post by Dr. Josh Nudell offers some thoughtful reflections on the SCS’ decision.

On a personal note, it was disappointing to be told that, in effect, I will most likely not be able to attend the annual meetings of the major professional organization in my discipline, at least until new hotel contracts are negotiated. At the very least, I am being forced to balance the advantages of keeping up professional connections and engaging in paper sessions with the very real possibilities that I will be infected by Covid, and that a Covid infection could seriously damage my stable but fragile health. I am not the only SCS member who finds herself in this challenging situation.

On October 27, 1972, Richard Nixon pocket vetoed the Rehabilitation Act. This Act, designed to protect the civil rights of disabled Americans, especially their right to access public education, was deemed too expensive and not that important, because disabled Americans were a small minority of the population. Nixon vetoed a second version in March 1973. Only after significant political pressure did he sign a watered-down version of the Rehabilitation Act in September 1973.

Nixon’s administration (and those of Ford and Carter) nevertheless declined to enforce a key provision of the Rehabilitation Act, Section 504. Retrofitting buildings and public transportation for accessibility was expensive. Any parent of a disabled child will know Section 504. It is what allows them to work with their child’s school to ensure that their child receives the accommodations necessary for full access to public education. What parents likely do not know is that Section 504 was enforced only after the organized, sustained protests of disability rights activists (many of them disabled people), most importantly by occupying federal offices in San Francisco and elsewhere in 1977.

Basic civil rights for disabled people exist only because disabled people refused to accept their exclusion from schools, stores, restaurants, and public transportation. They refused to remain quiet and hidden away from sight. The Americans with Disabilities Act, which protects disabled people from discrimination in society on the basis of their disability, was signed into law by George Bush in 1990 and amended in 2008 in response to judicial efforts to water down its protections. As Judy Heumann noted in a public lecture at Berkeley in Fall 2022, the elevators that many able bodied people — especially parents with strollers — use in metro stations are there because of the efforts of the disabled community. This is almost always the case: creating inclusive environments benefits everyone.

To put disability rights in the U.S. into historical context: Title IX was signed into law on June 23, 1972. Roe v. Wade legalized abortion on January 22, 1973. Boomers and Gen X came of age in a world where it was legal to discriminate against disabled people. It is likely that even most members of Gen X were educated in public K-12 schools that did not mainstream physically or cognitively disabled children. Given this, it is not difficult to understand why ableism continues to be so baked into the world views of most Americans, including those who would never tolerate racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, etc.

Why am I talking about the history of civil rights for disabled Americans on the SCS blog?

Because the Covid pandemic has made these issues more relevant than ever, including for SCS members. Indeed, the SARS-CoV-2 virus and our collective national (and global) response to it has disabled millions of Americans. Most conversations about Covid and disability focus on Long Covid, a serious and poorly understood post-viral syndrome, rather than on how the pandemic paradoxically made life and work easier for many disabled people. Notably, the move to more fully online and hybrid jobs has actually allowed a record number of disabled people to join the workforce. This fact serves as a stark reminder that disability is not simply a medical condition experienced by an individual; it is also the result of choices made by able-bodied people to create environments that exclude disabled people. It is a mismatch between a person and their environment.

As we enter the fourth year of the Covid era, this environmental model of disability is particularly relevant. With significant population immunity, and variants that are extremely contagious and infective but no longer lethal to otherwise healthy individuals under the age of 65, we find ourselves at a crossroads.

For most people, a Covid infection brings with it the (likely) small risk of Long Covid and higher risk of a cardiovascular event for up to a year post-infection. Covid is not and never will be “just a cold,” despite the way it presents in most people. Either directly or indirectly, it can cause vascular damage.

For people who are immunocompromised, either because of age, a medical condition, or medication, it remains a very dangerous virus. In absolute terms, the numbers of hospitalizations and/or deaths are low by comparison to 2020-2022. Still, the number of deaths in the US remains stubbornly high in vulnerable populations (nearly 2,000 during the week of March 8, 2023). So far, the SARS-CoV-2 virus has not become truly seasonal.

I have been immunocompromised since 2008. I avoided actively sick people and washed my hands a lot. I had fewer illnesses than before I was immunocompromised, thanks to these small changes. In 2013, I was diagnosed with Addison’s Disease (adrenal insufficiency). To treat this and complications from it, I was frequently taking high doses of steroids over the next seven years. Steroids left me significantly more immunocompromised but, again, I was fine, so long as I took precautions like avoiding indoor crowds, not eating indoors at restaurants, and asking sick students to remain at home. My concern pre-Covid was not the flu itself, but the fact that a minor flu infection could send me to the hospital with an adrenal crisis.

I was able to use the pandemic to wean myself off steroids (I recommend baking bread to mitigate steroid withdrawal, by the way). Seven years of steroid dependence left me severely immunocompromised and unable to mount a robust response to the Covid vaccines. Like others in my position (e.g., people taking B-cell depleting medications; transplant patients; people with immune deficiencies), I waited patiently for Evusheld, a prophylactic treatment compromised of two monoclonal antibodies, to become available. It was meant to be my ticket back to my pre-pandemic life.

I received Evusheld in mid-April 2022, but, by late summer 2022, it became clear that it would no longer work against the newest Omicron variants. Its Emergency Use Authorization was allowed to lapse in January 2023 because rapid viral evolution had made every known monoclonal antibody ineffective.

In this setting, the CDC and White House has advised high-risk people to avoid a Covid infection: no indoor dining, no attending indoor events, no flights, and so on. In other words, we are expected to remain out of sight and take full responsibility for keeping ourselves safe while the rest of the world gets back to business as usual. It is impossible to determine when transmission is high or low because, as Trump suggested we do back in the first months of the pandemic, we have stopped counting. Paxlovid remains the best (and only) option for those of us who can tolerate the liver and kidney toxicity that comes with it. It remains unknown how well Paxlovid will work in high-risk populations without the assistance of monoclonal antibodies.

Beyond the broader consequences of this situation for my life are the specific consequences for how I do my job. My institution, UT Austin, has been very accommodating. I hope to teach in person in the academic year 2023–2024, but it has been made clear to me that I can teach online if I decide that is my best option. My department leadership has made every department event accessible via Zoom. My UT committees all meet on Zoom.

So far, all the large (and small) professional conferences I have wanted to attend, including the SCS, have offered a hybrid option; or, at a minimum, permitted me to present on Zoom. I miss seeing people in person. I miss the casual hallway conversations, the meals, the serendipitous encounters. It is difficult not to feel a bit invisible, even if I deeply appreciate the efforts made to ensure that I am not being actively excluded from professional events.

As the SCS debates the format of future meetings, I hope the leadership keeps in mind our commitment to DEI. Inclusion is as important as diversity and equity. I am not the only member who is constantly assessing the health risks of a particular activity — and usually deciding it is not worth the risk of harming my currently good but fragile health.

Inclusion should also be a central concern for an organization that counts many graduate students and non-tenure-track faculty as members. Research budgets have been slashed or taken away entirely. Graduate students typically do not have access to enough funds to cover the costs of attending a meeting in person year after year. As the demographics of our membership change, as we find ourselves dealing with an endemic virus that continues to maim and kill, we need to think hard about how to remain an inclusive organization.

Inclusivity takes work. Accessibility is expensive. “It is too expensive” was the same rationale used in the 1970s to deny disabled Americans the civil rights that we take for granted today. We need to change how we think about accessibility and inclusivity, not as something “extra” or as an “accommodation” for a small group, but as the baseline. It is past time we recognize that a commitment to the principles of DEI means a commitment to changing old practices and cognitive models. In classrooms, this means designing our classes with all students in mind. In planning events, it means recognizing that the choice to meet in person only is also a choice to be exclusive.

Choices send messages. When someone tells me that an event cannot be hybrid because it is too expensive, I understand that my needs, and those of others in a similar situation, are not worth the effort and expense. I do not believe that organizers intend to be exclusive. But that is, nevertheless, the result.

I understand that technology is imperfect. I understand that cost is a very real issue, as is the experience of the in-person attendees. I do not want to minimize the challenges. But I suspect that these problems have solutions. It is not a coincidence that, among the SCS panels I attended in January 2023, the disability panel had the easiest time with the technology. Disabled people and scholars who work on disability are used to problem-solving.

One of the few good things to emerge from the pandemic was the normalization of inclusive modalities like Zoom. Zoom fatigue is real, and I understand why people with choices prefer to avoid it. Not all of us have that choice. It has been heartening to see so many event organizers choosing to livestream their lectures and conferences. As the lone specialist in late antiquity at my institution, I have loved being able to participate in the events of three late antiquity groups: the Boston Area Patristics Group; the Philadelphia Seminar on Christian Origins; and the Elizabeth A. Clark Center for Late Antiquity. Before Covid, my geographic location made these events inaccessible to me (and many others).

It is invigorating to hear and discuss work in progress. By using either a fully virtual or hybrid format, these groups (and many others) have become accessible to scholars from all over North America, the UK, and Australia. I have to imagine that this has led to a bigger audience and richer discussions. I get tired of staring at my computer just like everyone else, but I also recognize that live streaming has become a great equalizer. One needs only an internet connection and event link to benefit from a much more inclusive academic community. In my own experience, as a teacher and a scholar, accessibility and inclusion end up being a win for everyone involved.


Jen Ebbeler is an Associate Professor of Classics at UT Austin. Her research focuses on the cultural history of the Later Roman Empire, especially North Africa; Augustine; and Latin Epistolography. Since 2008, she has lived with chronic illness and complications from the treatments for these illnesses, including severe immunocompromise. Her own experiences with disability and ableism has informed her thinking about the way that the built environment and choices made by the able-bodied often unintentionally exclude disabled people from professional spaces. She hates Zoom as much as everyone but prefers it to risking further serious damage to her health.