We are in the midst of a pandemic and, as is natural, society is dripping with anxiety. We are witnessing people reacting to the crisis in different ways.
Some members of the public have dragged their addled minds across the supermarket floors, stockpiling everything they can, from toilet paper to tins of baked beans. Others are doling out kindness at heart-warming levels, banding with friends and family to help those who are vulnerable.
A crisis such as this has the ability to show us who we are as humans – where our strengths lie, where we fail and how deep our levels of compassion and ignorance are. The COVID-19 response is underlining a cold fact to disabled people – that enough hasn’t been done to support the disabled community.
Without a doubt, COVID-19 is serious and society is right to make accommodations at work and within education to protect everyone. However, disabled people, such as myself, are noticing accommodations that weren’t made for us (because they were considered impractical or implausible), are made now without hesitation.
When masses of able-bodied people find their health threatened, accommodations become ‘necessary’ and are swiftly implemented. Yet, disabled people who required these very accommodations to lead normal lives, were turned away.
One of the quickest changes we’ve seen introduced to the workforce is homeworking. Vast amounts of workers are working from home to reduce the risk of infection and to keep everyone safe. However, for disabled people (minus the threat of a virus) homeworking is a difficult option to come by and many companies are simply unwilling to allow it, though a disabled employee’s quality of life could immeasurably improve if they work from home.
With my condition, for example, I cannot work away from home, so despite having a first-class degree, appropriate work is scarce. Numerous amounts of people are dealing with this icy reality. For others, they’ve been denied the right to work from home as it’d be an ‘inconvenience’ for the company, so they continually head into work and place their health at risk just to make ends meet.
If possible, working from home should be an option given to disabled people who need it, without resistance or awkwardness. If a company is able to permit homeworking during the COVID-19 breakout, then in future, they need to make the same accommodations for disabled people. We are doing this now because we recognise health is important. We should recognise health comes first outside of a pandemic too, and always.
People with disabilities don’t just face challenges at work. Access to education can also be an ongoing problem within the disabled community. At some universities, disabled people are not permitted access to online lectures or alternative methods of learning, with some being told they shouldn’t go to university unless they can physically attend. While this isn’t true for every university (I went to Loughborough and was supported at every turn), there are a significant amount of students in the UK facing these very barriers to learning.
Stories of having to leave due to a shocking lack of support are common. Now, students all over the country are accessing education in the alternative ways initially proposed and wished for by those with disabilities. Somehow, this is managing to happen for thousands of students at a time!
Disability affects people in different ways. Disability can force people to stay at home and fall into the grips of isolation. A lot of disabled people (though not all) battle with grief, dreaming about the lives they could be leading and ruminating over the experiences they’re missing out. Now that the able-bodied masses are expected to stay inside, complaints of boredom and concerns for mental health are bleeding through social media and into regular conversation.
Everybody is concerned about isolation. At this very moment, people are crying and complaining about the events, holidays or concerts they need to give up, attaching the word ‘grief’ to their feelings. People aren’t realising that disabled people live this way all the time and it is not a temporary experience.
Isolation is difficult, but imagine if it were permanent?
Too many disabled people and elderly people have been living in isolation for years without much acknowledgement. Of course, not everyone is lamenting over staying at home during this time. COVID-19 is a dangerous virus that is inflicting suffering everywhere it goes, and that should not in any way be minimised by such worries. To all those who are facing hardship now, concerns over holidays and concerts don’t matter. To those who are losing their loved ones to the virus, another person’s ‘grief’ over missing out on events is abominable.
COVID-19 is showing us that accessibility at work and within education is entirely possible – that it isn’t OK to tell people to choose between their health and their jobs. Society is telling us, showing us, that health and wellbeing is a priority.
We need to remember this: COVID-19 is giving us all a glimpse into the pain of isolation. It is showing us how some disabled people live and what we must do to accommodate them, so they too can access work and education like everybody else. When society resumes to what it was, I hope it will remain flexible in order to accommodate those who just wish to learn and to earn a living.