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Disability and the Pandemic

Caroline's picture

TL;DR: The pandemic has demanded new ways for everyone to access the world. Some of these forms were more accessible for disabled people than the pre-pandemic world. Can we keep what we have gained in an ableist society that wants to return to "normal"?

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many disabled people have noticed something: accommodations that were once written off as "impossible" suddenly became feasible, even normalized. People worked from home. Social gatherings and time with friends and loved ones happened virtually. Some institutions—certainly not all, but some—suddenly seemed to acknowledge that people's personal lives and health can interfere with their ability to work, and offered unprecedented (there's that word again) leniency on assignments, deadlines, and other expectations. At the same time, the [American] public also turned its attention to the shortcomings of the healthcare system. One of the many inevitable questions arising from all of this: are any of these changes, any of these accommodations, any of these critiques of the system, going to last? In the early days of the pandemic, I held optimism that my culture would see improvements in accessibility as a result of the massive disruption. I hoped that working from home would become a more widespread option, that more events would continue to take place in the accessible virtual world, and that the United States would undergo significant healthcare reforms. Two years in, most of this optimism is gone. That's a separate, longer conversation about how capitalist greed outweighs our society's care for disabled lives, especially in a crisis that by its very nature systematically render the people most vulnerable to it invisible (see Riva Lehrer, "The Virus Has Stolen Your Face From Me").

The bright spot that remains, albeit tarnished, is Zoom (and similar platforms). Zoom lets people go to work, school, interviews, therapy, myriad recreational events, parties, and their friends' and families' company without actually going anywhere. Zoom lets a wheelchair user into an event that would otherwise have been held in an inaccessible space. Zoom brings a chronically ill person to her friend's party when she would normally have been too unwell to attend. Zoom eliminates the stress and discomfort of transportation for an autistic person whose boss can't understand why she wants to work from home. Zoom allows people to come together who are usually separated by logistics—space, time, cost, spoons, etc.—and can even foster new, wonderful relationships that would not have begun otherwise. Because of Zoom, because the pandemic demanded new forms of accessibility and those forms were sometimes more accessible than the normal world, I regularly meet up with a group of friends that embodies autistic/neurodivergent joy and access intimacy. What we have created will last even if the popularity of Zoom-everything wanes.

The problem is that that won't be the case for all of the virtual accessibility that has been born out of the pandemic. On the whole, our culture desperately wants to "return to normal." Even advocacy for continued precautions often revolves around the idea that being safe now will better enable us to "return to normal" later (and not have to go BACK to crisis mode AGAIN). And as much as I want to be able to do things in-person without anxiety, I don't want us to lose the accessibility we gained. At the moment, the things we are treating as milestones of normalcy are also the return of barriers for disabled people. Keeping those barriers down, assessing what we have gained and lost and fighting to keep new accessibility, is an immediate goal for disability justice.