How chronic illness and disability is impacted by COVID-19

Granbury junior AB Boyd was diagnosed with POTS before her 18th birthday and has since been diagnosed with three more chronic illnesses. For students with chronic illness, the pandemic has brought new accessibility in their academics and beyond. Courtesy photo

By Ava Dunwoody | Arts & Life Editor

With the recent reinstatement of the Office of Access and Learning Accommodation shuttle service, students have become more aware of the presence of chronic illness and disability on Baylor’s campus. But that doesn’t mean all problems are solved when it comes to accessibility — especially with the changes due to COVID-19.

Granbury junior AB Boyd was diagnosed with her first chronic illness, postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS), two days before her 18th birthday. Since then, she has been diagnosed with three more and is often at doctor appointments or in the hospital.

“My experience with being chronically ill has been difficult to say the least,” Boyd said. “I am constantly worried about passing out, throwing up or falling over from dizziness. I had a hard time my freshman year of college. I was the sickest I had ever been and felt like most people didn’t understand or care.”

When Boyd was attending in-person classes, she used the OALA shuttle and said it was her life-line freshman year. She has also used her state-issued handicap tag when going to get groceries or to the library.

Boyd said the pandemic had actually been a positive experience for her in terms of accessibility and school. Because classes now have the option to be online for those with COVID-19, Boyd is able to have the same experience as her peers when she can’t attend class because of chronic illness.

“I am taking almost all of my classes online, and being able to do class from my bed has helped my chronic illnesses tremendously,” Boyd said. “I don’t have to put my body through the stress of getting up and going every day because I can do most of what I need at home laying down. My professors are more willing to work with me when I’ve had an off day.”

Birmingham alumna Emma Whittington graduated in December 2020 and said she also experienced chronic illness at Baylor.

“I became chronically ill in 2018, in between my freshman and sophomore years at Baylor,” Whittington said. “After acquiring a virus, my body never really healed, and I developed several chronic illnesses as a result. I originally had to take two semesters off but returned to Baylor for my junior year.”

When Whittington came back to campus, she too relied on the OALA shuttles to get her to class. Once the pandemic came, however, Whittington said she made the decision to do her last semester at Baylor entirely online so she could stay home.

“I have to be extremely careful and almost 100% isolated because I’m high-risk for COVID-19,” Whittington said. “I was so glad Baylor was able to offer me a completely online schedule, but it was upsetting that I couldn’t be with my friends or roommates.”

In addition to her own personal experience, Whittington said chronic illness research is becoming more important than ever as more people are contracting COVID-19 and are left with side effects that can lead to developing a chronic illness or disability. Not only can accessibility become an issue with the virus, but more people are now having to cope with that.

Whittington said her experience with chronic illness and disability has impacted every part of her life and has led her to plan on attending graduate school so that she can work in health and human services in the future.

“I am actually thankful and grateful for my experience because it has made me who I am today,” Whittington said. “OALA was essential for me to graduate, so I would love to be a part of providing accessibility to students at the university level.”

Boyd said she has also been transformed by her experience with chronic illness. She said one of the toughest aspects of dealing with health problems while in college has been making and maintaining friendships.

“I’ve mostly been met with students who find me weird for prioritizing my health, and that has taken a mental toll on me,” Boyd said. “I’ve discovered many people do not understand what I go through on a daily basis, and therefore think I’m either a flake, faking being sick or not trying hard enough to get better.”

Both Boyd and Whittington said they think bringing awareness to and fostering a better understanding of what they struggle with helps to de-stigmatize chronic illness and disability. Boyd said people are often uncomfortable with it because they don’t understand.

During this period of isolation, Whittington said a good way to support peers with chronic illness and/or disabilities is to reach out and check up on them. Not only is this a good way to combat loneliness, but it also opens the floor to dialogue on this topic.

“I am completely open and honest about sharing my story,” Whittington said. “I actually enjoy talking about it and answering people’s questions and definitely don’t get offended or turned off by people asking me kindly and honestly.”

Whittington said the topic of chronic illness and disability during the pandemic is important, and she hopes it will foster the way for better accessibility recourses post-pandemic.

“I am hoping that in the future, the effects of the pandemic will leave Baylor and OALA to become more and more available so that our disabled/chronically ill students can have a great Baylor experience just like their peers,” Whittington said.