Living with Disability in the Time of Coronavirus

Shahrzad Ghobadlou

(Note: This is a post in response to our call for submissions addressing the experience of graduate students living with disability in the time of COVID. Thank you to Shahrzad Ghobadlou for sharing such an experience, and thank you to Ariadne Wolf for taking the lead on the call. If you are interested in contributing a post to MLAGrads on this or any other topic, please email Janine Utell, program manager for professional development and co-staff liaison to the Committee on the Status of Graduate Students in the Humanities, at jutell (at) mla (dot) org.)

I am responding to a thoughtful post by Ariadne Wolf, who wrote how the pandemic has affected people with disabilities. Of course, we were disabled in many ways due to the pandemic, but this period also gave us a new perspective on how to live under constraints. This post is about our life under constraint from the perspective of someone who has an invisible disability.

I suffer from a chronic disease that severely affects my immune system and makes me susceptible to infections and viruses. However, if you were to meet me at school, you would never guess how hard I work to maintain a sense of balance in my life. You would see me as a young, energetic person interested in learning about new scholarship. There is an accent and rhythm in my speech that immediately identifies me as an international student. I am proud of my accent and pleased to show myself as equally engaged in academic life as my peers. So far, I look like any other graduate student in your eyes and am also so glad to have met you!

All of a sudden, the pandemic arrives like an unexpected fall and henceforth, life descends into despair like leaves falling from trees. Everyone is forced to adjust their social interactions, first by wearing masks and then by distancing themselves from others. You might still meet with your friends and family but you are more cautious. The social distancing policy soon prohibits any large gatherings, and all meetings and classes transform to virtual Zoom meetings. Even though surreal, virtual becomes the new normal! 

You might have noticed that I am recently absent from all gatherings. You respect my decision for being cautious, but the social distancing makes you also forget about me. After six months you do not inquire about my whereabouts. 

On my side, things are a bit different. I see a question getting bigger and bigger: Who would help if I test positive for Covid? While most students went back to their home countries and hometowns, I couldn’t return due to visa issues. Like many other international students, I shouldered the solitude alone. Later in the summer 2021, the insurance stopped covering one of my medicines. After a few months of changing multiple medicines, my auto-immune system developed multiple inflammations, so I started new injections to suppress it even further. Life got more complicated when my housing situation became precarious through no fault of my own. I am not writing this post for sympathy but to let my scholar friends with disabilities know what they should do in such cases.

Despite the fact that I could see no end to the pandemic and my medications were failing me, I’m glad that I talked to my school about my situation. My constrained life has also taught me to be cautious about my level of tolerance for outside obstacles. The importance of taking care of yourself can’t be overstated. So define a level of tolerance for yourself and know which part is doable by yourself and which part is not. It is also important not to endure a situation silently. If you recognize an outside element interfering with your control over your disability, talk to your family, a counselor, or even your advisor. 

In my case, I discussed the situation first with my parents. As a result of their distance, they were unable to offer any assistance other than to raise concerns. As soon as I discussed the situation with my advisors, they immediately sought help from the school to ensure I received appropriate support, both financially and mentally. When you are dealing with a disability, whether it is visible or invisible, don’t try to handle it all on your own. Be vocal and talk to your advisors before you lose your energy to handle the difficulties that life throws at you. Maintaining good energy is essential for academic success. A final suggestion: keeping each other in mind is essential.