What the COVID-19 crisis teaches us about the place for disability in society

Charli is a 19 year old #iWill Ambassador and student. She is also an active Scout and member of the Scout’s Community Impact Group.

COVID-19 is making an impact across all of our daily lives – but for me, as a disabled and chronically ill young person, some of these challenges are already familiar. As an activist, I am fighting for better communication and support for disabled people, both during this crisis and in the future. Here are the lessons I feel we can all learn from the COVID-19 crisis. 

1. Increased accessibility is a possibility, and it should be here to stay

For many disabled people, traditional education and work places are not spaces we fit. When asking for accommodations like working from home, it is seen as an inconvenience, and we are told they aren’t possible. 

Yet when COVID-19 began, it took only days for companies and universities to move online and to adapt imaginatively to using new digital tools. While welcome, I can’t say I didn’t feel frustrated that this was suddenly possible. 

I don’t think these tools should necessarily replace standard ways of working, but there is no reason for them to be abandoned completely after the crisis. For example, my lecturers have been uploading the written transcripts they would use in-person.  So why isn’t this always uploaded to support those who struggle with the normal recordings? Many pupils find lectures challenging due to concentration and sensory issues, or being hard of hearing. 

Similarly, for those of us dealing with chronic pain and fatigue, working from home can be a key accommodation. Having to drag our aching and exhausted bodies into an office or to two hour long lectures daily is no easy feat. Right now, being able to take our time and tailor our days to fit our bodies feels like a luxury – but it shouldn’t be. 

The current accommodations could enable so many more to work or study, and make us feel truly integrated into society. Having a meeting over Skype or Zoom instead of travelling for hours can mean I don’t deal with the payback my body gives me for days afterwards, and that little break can mean the world. Telephone medical consultations can also be a relief for many. 

We shouldn’t let healthcare, schools and workplaces say they can’t facilitate these accommodations once the crisis is over, just because able-bodied people are back to life as normal.

2. Social media gives communities the space to come together and push for change

Social media has always been the most accessible way for me to be an activist. And, although I’m now able to do more in-person too, it will always be one of my favourite places to spread the word about the things I believe in. During the coronavirus crisis, it has become a place for the work of many, for communities to come together in new and creative ways.

There are people sending mums of autistic children foods they can’t access, people supporting the NHS in their thousands, incredible stories of people in their 90s surviving coronavirus. These stories keep me going when it is possible for anxiety to be overwhelming. 

Through the Scouts Community Impact group, I was part of the process behind the successful “ThreeFor3” campaign, where we asked people to share the three ways they’re looking after their mental health, and to tag three friends to share their own. It was so much fun to see so many people take part – we even trended on Twitter!

Social media is a fertile space for political discussion and for coming together with like minds. Along with positive stories, there are those holding the government to account and making sure that a certain level of appropriate scrutiny is held up. There’s a lot of talk about “putting your politics aside” during this time, but in my opinion, it’s even more important to be political in order to better the actions of our elected officials for now and our futures, for the frontline and for vulnerable people.

3. A pandemic doesn’t pause our disabilities or vulnerabilities

Something that the discussion hasn’t always considered is that just because we are united around a shared crisis – it doesn’t mean our other challenges have disappeared. Services may be closing, but it doesn’t mean we get a break, whether that be from health conditions, caring responsibilities, family issues, struggles with our mental health, or a combination.

If anything, many of our existing challenges will be heightened or exacerbated. Isolation is only intensifying the weight many young people already carry on our shoulders. And with school and university still up in the air, many of us have had support we rely on withdrawn.

I implore government officials in education, health and social care to take into account how different this situation is for every young person. Where you can, take the opportunity to hear from young people’s lives and experiences. For every young person, there is a different experience of this crisis – we need to see each one as an individual instead of a statistic.

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