In the last few months, as stay at home orders were issued in order to slow the spread of the Coronavirus, all kinds of people in the world have had to deal with a new normal. A friend of mine was telling me the other day about the challenges that she and her family have had to navigate when school was moved online for her two kids. They were having a hard time getting motivated to do schoolwork because they weren’t in a classroom and both my friend and her husband were dealing with unforeseen challenges as they were working from home.
More personally to me, I can say that I have had more meetings over Zoom in the past three months than I have in the rest of my life collectively. That includes meeting with my counselor and case managers over the phone and online, which is something that I never thought that I would do. I even participated in a virtual happy hour a few weeks ago with the Lawrence Women’s Network. We all got online together and had a nice conversation. That was really fun for me because I can’t often find transportation to go to events like that when they happen in the community. Saying hello to all kinds of people that I don’t see often from the comfort of my office was a really good time.
In my last post, I wrote about what I considered to be a silver lining that may come out of this situation, even though there have been numerous challenges. The silver lining for me personally is that, because of this pandemic, I think people might be able to relate to the isolation and loneliness that accompanies disability in a way that they never have before. Going forward, people will have a greater understanding of what it means to have external barriers beyond your control prevent you from going where you want to go. And people will be able to relate to the frustration of not being able to do what you want to do even if you feel well enough or have the resources and the time and the desire to do so.
In a fascinating article called “Why the Coronavirus May Make the World More Accessible,” written for the BBC, a writer named Matthew Keegan took this concept one step further than I did. Mr. Keegan has a mobility impairment like I do, and he thought the long term effects of this pandemic might, very practically, mean good things for people with disabilities. In his article, he wrote that as the world opens back up, people must continue to practice social distancing. In order to make that work, aisles in stores and restaurants are going to need to be wider. And wider aisles make it easier for wheelchair users to frequent places of business. Automatic doors mean that all kinds of people don’t need to touch door handles. Automatic doors make it easier for wheelchair users to go into places of business without having to awkwardly hold a door open while inching a wheelchair forward and being mindful of all the space around the wheelchair in the process.
Perhaps the most lasting change as a result of this pandemic is this, Mr. Keegan claims. It is possible that working from home will no longer be seen as an unreasonable accommodation by most businesses. That means more people with disabilities will be able to enter the workforce and feel productive. More people will be able to go to work and utilize their skills and talents instead of simply wishing they could. I know from experience that the positive effect of that alone simply cannot be measured.
Who knew that it would take a global pandemic to create an accessible society that people with disabilities have been advocating for decades?
As the weeks go by, society is going to open back up in phases. And according to most people I know, that is a good thing because I think all of us are going a little stir crazy at this point. Schools will open for the Fall semester and shops and restaurants will again become places where people will gather, talk and socialize. But it is my hope that not everything will return to “normal.” I plan on using Zoom as a way to connect with people in the months and years to come. And I hope that the world will remain as accessible as it has had to become in order for everyone to stay safe. As Mr. Keegan has pointed out, accessibility is beneficial for everyone.