Why did it take a global pandemic for things to become accessible?

I keep finding myself asking one question over and over: why did it take a global pandemic for things to become accessible? Obviously, things aren’t perfect. There’s still so much work left to do and it’s not like a flip was switched making the ADA perfect. Man, I wish. But seriously, look around at all that’s available right now.

Working from home

So many companies have made the switch from working in an office to remote work. Which is great! And important considering, y’know – pandemic. But for decades, disabled people have advocated for this and been consistently turned down. It’s no coincidence that the unemployment rate is significantly higher for disabled people.

Working from home is a much more accessible option for so many people, myself included, but it’s always treated as an impossibility. If anything, covid has taught us that that largely isn’t true. Just think – how many disabled people could’ve been working for years now if they had been allowed to work remotely as we all are now?

Online classes

Much like working from home gives many disabled people a fair shot at job opportunities, the option to enroll in online classes does the same. For those who struggle with chronic illness or the physical barriers in many universities, online classes are the only option. Access to education shouldn’t be such a battle, but unfortunately it is for a lot of people. Even at my school, where no one lived on campus and a lot of classes were available online – not all of them were. So chances were, if you wanted to finish a degree you were going to have to go to campus.

Telehealth

Obviously right now telehealth is a great option just to minimize the risk of spreading/catching covid. But it’s super helpful for a lot of other reasons as well.

You’d think that doctors offices are usually accessible, but in my experience that’s not really the case. A lot of times they’re overcrowded and the exam rooms are tiny. It’s not unusual to get stuck waiting for a ridiculously long time. I always struggle when I have an appointment, and while that’s going to vary for everyone, the point is that it’s not uncommon.

Plus, a lot of disabled people don’t have access to transportation. Uber/Lyft aren’t options for a lot of us with heavy, power wheelchairs and people with service dogs are left on the side of the road all the time. There are some accessible services that provide transportation to and from medical appointments but they are both unreliable and place an unfair burden on the person requesting a ride. A 20 minute trip can take you 6 hours, and no, that is not an exaggeration.

Livestreamed events

I recently got to watch one of my very favorite bands perform a full concert in a beautiful theater thanks to a livestream. The whole time I was thinking – why wasn’t this a thing before? They were able to have fans all over the world sign on to watch, and I’m sure a huge number of them had never been able to make it out to a live show before.

Money, transportation, lack of local tour dates, physical barriers in venues, health complications, and a million other reasons could prevent someone from being able to attend a concert in person. Livestreaming an event opens it up for tons of other people who would otherwise miss out. More money for the performer, more inclusion for fans. It’s a win win.

Conventions have also held online panels. Not only is this great for people wishing to attend remotely, but for the panelists as well. Allowing people to join virtually opens the door for anyone who is unable to travel to events.

Masks and consideration for immunocompromised people

I genuinely think that the use of masks could be one of the best things to come from this pandemic. If we could all agree to wear a mask when we’re sick with a cold, that would be amazing. Unfortunately, we now have to deal with not just anti-vaxxers, but anti-maskers too. I’ll never understand the anger people have over a piece of fabric that protects us all, but whatever.

Before this, the average person didn’t really give much thought to immunocompromised people. I’m not naive to think that suddenly as a society we’re making any great effort for those with chronic illnesses but, I’d like to think that at the very least, the pandemic has brought some awareness. I wish that more people would care, but for those that have embraced masks – please know it makes a difference and it is appreciated by so many of us.

Inaccessibility is still a huge problem, obviously.

With restaurants moving their dining outdoors, sidewalks are difficult, if not impossible, to traverse. Anywhere that isn’t enforcing mask policies are unsafe for a lot of high risk people – myself included. People in rural areas still lack a lot of newer, accessible services. Not everyone can afford internet to access virtual alternatives. And all of the issues prior to the pandemic still exist. The ADA isn’t enforced. There isn’t some hotline you can call to get a ramp installed at the local cafe you want to try.

It’s a joke to suggest that disabled people don’t struggle with accessibility in 2020. That’s not the point I’m trying to make with this post. However, ever since covid hit, we’ve seen the vast majority of the country embrace numerous accessible alternatives that disabled people have advocated for and were refused for decades. The question is why?

Except, I know why. It’s because now abled people are realizing that it benefits them, too.

When disabled people need anything – we have to fight for it. If you’ve ever wanted to know a little bit about disabled history, watch Crip Camp on Netflix for a glimpse into how we got to the ADA. Healthcare in this country is a constant battle and disabled people are always on the front lines. We have to fight to stay in our homes, for job opportunities, for accommodations in school and the workplace, for representation. Hell, nowadays we even have to fight for straws. It’s all a fight. It never ends, and it is exhausting.

But when abled people catch onto the fact that accessibility is good for them too? It’s suddenly a whole ‘nother ball game. Abled people need to stay home to protect themselves and their families? Office jobs move to remote work. When immunocompromised and chronically ill people asked for years to work from home? Not possible.

Abled people need entire restaurants moved outdoors so they can have a pandemic cheeseburger? Sure! Wheelchair users need a ramp to get up the one step in the front? No, sorry. It’s an old building/we just don’t get many disabled customers/etc. The list of excuses goes on and on.

It sort of reminds me of how products that can make a huge difference for disabled people only get made if they can be marketed as some fun gimmick for abled people. Think snuggies, sock sliders, pre cut and peeled fruit, etc. If it’s solely marketed as an item to help disabled people, 1 of 2 things will happen. It will either be wildly expensive because it’s priced as adaptive equipment or it won’t be sold at all.

As someone who is really tired of struggling to get any sort of access, it pisses me off.

It’s not a bad thing to point out how accessibility is great for abled people. The more people who are impacted positively the better. But it’s not fair that accessibility isn’t deemed valuable or worth the effort if it only exists to help disabled people. It’s gross and shows just how far we have to go in terms of harmful ableism within society.

Centering abled people in anything related to accessibility is such a bad move. It ignores the decades of work done by disabled activists who are absolutely the most qualified. Also, benefiting from something and depending on it are two completely different things. It’s much easier to let things go if it’s not seen as an absolute necessity. Be honest now – how many of the things I’ve mentioned in this post have you assumed will be temporary? Can you see why that scares me?

What happens after covid?

As we start to loosen up on lockdown, and we have already started, abled and otherwise healthy people are going to start returning back to ‘normal’. Going back to the office, going out to socialize. The closer we get to pre-pandemic life, the more we’re going to see cutbacks on vital options and services that disabled people still need.

That’s especially scary considering that while things seem ‘safe’ for a lot of people now (it shouldn’t, but that’s another conversation), lockdown is nowhere near over for those of us who are high risk. We’re going to be stuck inside for the foreseeable future. I know I’m not going back out until I can get a vaccine that’s proven effective.

I hate that I have to wonder if the accessibility we’re seeing during the pandemic going to be ripped away from the people who rely on it day to day once abled people don’t think they need it anymore. That I’m scared to see how many people are going to lose their jobs once the option to work from home is taken away. Or how many people are going to risk their safety while trying to keep up with their abled/healthy peers. I hate that I have to be afraid of what’s going to happen to disabled folks when people have started to move on and the rest of us are left behind.

Especially when it’s been proven that accessibility is actually not as impossible as we’ve been told it was for decades.



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