As more people are getting vaccinated and many states are lifting closures and restrictions, people with disabilities are urging non-disabled people to learn lessons from the coronavirus pandemic to create a safer, more inclusive world.
Many people are understandably relieved to move past the worst of the pandemic in the United States and have begun to talk about the prospect of going “back to normal” after being vaccinated. But such talk has spurred concern among people with disabilities, who see a return to pre-pandemic times as going back to facing unnecessary risks of people spreading illness and exclusionary practices at work and beyond.
“The idea of normal that we seem to hold in our minds really doesn’t include disabled people,” said Emily Ladau, an author and disability rights activist, who is a wheelchair user. “We have an understanding of normal as something that works for people who are non-disabled, who don’t have to take health precautions and access needs into consideration on a day-to-day basis. Are we talking about returning to a world that takes into consideration the lessons we’ve learned from the pandemic or going right back to excluding disabled people?”
Even as more than 107 million people in the U.S. have been fully vaccinated and COVID-19 cases and deaths have dropped significantly in recent months, there are still over 50,000 cases reported per day on average and more than 600 people dying of COVID-19 each day nationwide.
Meanwhile, many people with disabilities are at higher risk for severe COVID-19 cases, including those with conditions that affect their respiratory system (such as asthma or chronic lung disease), compromise their immune system (such as cancer) or affect their heart or blood pressure (such as diabetes or hypertension).
Here’s what disabled people want non-disabled people to know about going “back to normal”:
There was nothing “normal” about pre-COVID-19 conditions for disabled people.
“Going back to normal wasn’t actually working for most people. This rush to going back makes no sense. Disabled people are more likely to be unemployed or employed part time, more likely to live in poverty and extreme poverty. A lot of that has to do with workplaces refusing to accommodate, and what the pandemic has done is proven is that was all nonsense. We can work from home. So to say we have to rush back — you don’t really, you’re choosing to, leaving a good chunk of people out of the workforce for no reason.” ― Cara Reedy, program manager at Disability Media Alliance Project, who has dwarfism
“I get the desire for a normalcy because of how everything transpired but understand that the way we were functioning wasn’t very functional. We just have to recognize that what was normal doesn’t mean that it was healthy or really sustainable.” ― Vilissa Thompson, a social worker, writer and activist, who is a wheelchair user, has osteogenesis imperfecta and is hard of hearing
And there is no “post-COVID” world in sight.
“There are variants popping up that have effects we don’t know about quite yet. … If people start doing what some are currently, which is assuming they’re just vaccinated and free running around, there’s still a possibility of transmission of potentially harmful viruses. There’s a lot of vaccine hesitancy and vaccine inequity among communities of color, and it’s leaving many people partially or not vaccinated. We need everyone to continue wearing masks and properly distancing until we get everyone vaccinated.” ― Lisette Torres-Gerald, 40, disability activist, who is disabled
“It makes me furious because I haven’t been out of my house because of my disability. ... I’m just finally about to get the vaccine this week because they’re finally able to get to my house. So I’m not even vaccinated, and people are going out and they could expose people I live with to COVID and that could get back to me. … People are inconsiderate, they walk around without masks, they won’t keep distance. And I’m scared. ... I have a disability where I have respiratory weakness, so I’m high-risk. It’s not something I can fight. If somebody I come into contact with were to expose me, I don’t know if I would make it.” ― Dominick Evans, a disability consultant, who has spinal muscular atrophy, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder
“There is no post-COVID. There is no new normal. We still haven’t learned our lessons from influenza from 1918. We still have to take a flu shot every year, yet many people die each year, and we just learned to turn the other way and make it part of regular life.” ― Leonor Vanik, president of the National Coalition for Latinxs with Disabilities, who has a sister with Down syndrome
“The CDC roughly says one-third of people who had COVID will have long-term symptoms. Those are in fact disabilities: chronic fatigue, respiratory issues, cardiac issues, brain fog, blood clots, paralysis. Welcome to the disability community! … If it’s not you, it’s someone you’re in contact with: a spouse, a relative, a co-worker, a neighbor. … Trauma itself is a disability, whether physical or emotional. So the fallout of COVID is going to continue to play out for decades.” ― Rebecca Cokley, disability rights activist and program officer at the Ford Foundation, who lives with achondroplasia and chronic migraines
Keep allowing people to work remotely.
“I am a person with a speech disability, specifically a stutter. Work from home has been great for me since I can use the chat feature in online meetings to type and share my thoughts. … Before COVID-19, work from home was generally not popular, and disabled people had to try hard to get these accommodations. However, now that everyone needs that accommodation, it’s considered all right and doable. It took a pandemic for people to realize how accommodations are low-cost and totally doable, and I hope it stays that way.” ― Meenakshi Das, a software engineer focused on accessibility and member of the Diversability community
“Just be aware of opportunities disabled people have been denied: Many of us have asked for these accommodations, like being able to work from home and been denied. Understand that many people have thrived being able to work from home.” ― Thompson
“I used to work at a major media company. When they wanted to, people could work from home. But certain people couldn’t. Why? They’ve been out of the office since I don’t know when and they’re still not back. If you can broadcast news from your home now, why can’t you have a disabled anchor? All this proves was that barrier was complete and utter bigoted nonsense.” ― Reedy
Keep making events accessible virtually.
“Events can and should adopt a hybrid mode of delivery so that people with disabilities can choose to join virtually as they have been during COVID-19. ... Don’t choose an inaccessible in-person venue just because you offered an accessible virtual option! Provide automatic captioning at the least. ... Offer participants a variety of ways to engage in conversations through speech or chat.” ― Das
Continue to wear masks in crowded public settings.
“As an individual who gets pneumonia every single year, to have not gotten it this year is eye-opening. I probably will be wearing a mask out in crowded spaces for the foreseeable future. I want people to understand these accommodations aren’t special, and we shouldn’t have to fight tooth and nail for them.” ― Mia Ives-Rublee, disability and inclusion consultant, who is a wheelchair user
“The mask-wearing, it’s been proven that it prevents a lot of other illnesses. I was in New York City; we’re all in the subway together. A mask should just be a normal thing from now on. It’s not a big deal.” ― Reedy
“I think masks have become a permanent part of my life. My girlfriend pointed out: With masks, we didn’t get the flu this year. The flu is very hard on me because of respiratory complications. ... Do I think everybody should have to wear masks all the time? It’s up to you, once it’s safer, what you choose to do. But right now, I have a hard time envisioning a safer future because people just continue to do what they want.” ― Evans
Don’t go out if you’re sick.
“Be more conscious of the fact that if you’re not feeling well or not sure, stay at home. Do not bring it to the office or the grocery store. I understand some people, if they’re the only ones in the household, they have to do things. But if you don’t have to, stay home.” ― Thompson
People with disabilities have been calling for these changes for years. Listen.
“One of my friends, Rebecca Cokley, often says the disability community is the canary in the coal mine. We’ll get affected the most and soonest about any policy — whether police brutality, to COVID. ... There’s a frustration in the disability community because we are so often saying, ‘Hey, look out for this issue,’ and we’re so often ignored until it affects such a wide portion of the population. … If you listen to us, you will get to see what the cracks are in our society, and that’s the chance to make progress to a more equitable society that functions for everybody.” ― Ives-Rublee
“The disability community has been yelling at the top of their lungs. The [Americans With Disabilities Act] is in year 30. When people with disabilities asked for accommodations, they didn’t get it, but all of a sudden now everyone can work from home. That just adds more salt to the wound. It wasn’t until able-bodied individuals couldn’t work that everyone was able to pivot.” ― Vanik
“What I want people to understand the most is we tend to look at accessibility as an accommodation or something special for someone who needs it. But the pandemic has shown us that if we make the world more accessible for everyone, it works for everyone. If you create a curb-cut, everyone can use it, but not everyone can go up and down a curb. That applies to what we should take away from the pandemic: We have the opportunity to return not to pre-pandemic, ableist normal. We can instead create a world that actually works for everybody.” ― Ladau