The COVID-19 pandemic has rapidly changed the social landscape. Adapting has been a challenge for everyone. However, some disabled people are seeing an upside: better accessibility.
While the pandemic reshapes the world in unexpected ways, we owe it to ourselves to find out which of these changes are for the better.
Life at Home
Leaving the house can be a challenge for many people with disabilities. Some disabled people can’t drive, and others need specialized transportation. Even after they reach their destination, they may face new challenges. Inaccessible places, noise, and crowds can further complicate things.
Telehealth offers a low-stress alternative to visits at a doctor’s office. (Of course, these options need to be accessible.) Driving, sitting in a germy waiting room, and being in a medical environment are optional now. That can make a huge difference for some people.
Store deliveries and pickups are commonplace now. It’s easy to receive supplies from a parking lot or driveway. Navigating a busy store doesn’t have to be a problem anymore.
Virtual social engagements let disabled people take part in more group events. Broken elevators, inaccessible bathrooms, and bus schedules are no longer an issue. Neurodivergent people can enjoy socializing in a quiet, safe environment. Socializing at home takes away some outside stressors so disabled people can relax and have fun.
While not all disabilities and health conditions are visible, plenty are. Wheelchairs, skin conditions, prosthetics, tics, and other traits can make a disability obvious.
Now interviews, meetings, and workplace chats can happen without people seeing each other. Disabled people can turn off their cameras to avoid stares. They can choose whether and when to reveal their disabilities to coworkers.
The ability to turn off cameras can also hide body language. Some people with disabilities struggle to read others’ body language. Chats without cameras take away this problem and level the playing field a little more.
Of course, this may not help for deaf people who lip-read or people with audible speech disorders. No option works perfectly for everyone. But having more options can help.
Disabled people have been told they can’t work or study from home for many years. Now working from home is commonplace. Judgmental people and strict rules aren’t big barriers anymore.
Working from home also grants many people more control over their environments. People with sensory issues no longer need to suffer through noisy open offices or flickering fluorescent lights. Disabled people can adapt their environment as needed without worrying if their boss says it’s okay.
Bosses, recognizing the challenges of working from home, are offering more flexible hours. This means that disabled people have more freedom to set their hours and take breaks as needed.
Changing the Public Landscape
While people redesign public spaces for COVID-19, disabled people may find it easier to move around.
Germ-fighting changes also make room for wheelchair users. Automatic doors replace manual ones. Store aisles get wider, making it easier to navigate in a wheelchair.
Personal space is taking priority too. Crowds and physical closeness can be overwhelming for some neurodivergent people. Now that people are more aware than ever of germs, there’s more room to breathe.
Will it Last?
Are people with disabilities going to be better integrated into society, or will they be shut out again when the pandemic is over?
We can hope that business owners and employers will see how accessibility benefits disabled workers and customers. Disability activists will fight for inclusion. Friends of disabled people can speak up for them.
Regardless, people can no longer say “it’s impossible” as an excuse. The pandemic has proven that accessibility improvements are possible. It’s up to us as a society to make sure that we keep them.