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What COVID-19 Can Teach Us About Accessibility (Part 2)

Ashley Fontaine

woman in wheelchair marathon

In Part 1 of this series, we talked about how experiencing a global pandemic can open our eyes to some of the challenges people with disabilities face in a world that isn’t accommodating or inclusive. In Part 2, we'll talk about the power we have to change that.

Here are some lessons the COVID-19 pandemic should teach us about accessibility:

1. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) just scratches the surface

“You have this idea that people are taken care of, and the ADA is this magical thing, and it helps everyone and everything… and then you become disabled and it’s a reality slap that everywhere you go, there’s a barrier.” - Kerry Sheehan, disability activist

Restricting disability supports to formalized medical diagnoses creates inequity to begin with. Many people do not have access to medical care—the racial disparities in our healthcare system mean that many people of color do not receive proper diagnoses or the care they need.

In addition, accessibility encompasses a wide variety of life circumstances outside of ability/disability and the formal documentation of a special need covered by the ADA. Whether it’s age, socio-economic status, being a caregiver, immune system issues, physical limitations that don’t rise to the level of “disability”, or something else, there are countless reasons someone might need access accommodations. 

2. We have a responsibility to prioritize access

Everyone deserves to participate fully in their community. People with limited access to essential services, whatever the reason, are made especially vulnerable during times of crisis—and the burden to figure it out ends up on their shoulders. If you’re trying to advance social justice and equity, this is a status quo we must change.

Prioritizing access means keeping access considerations at the front of our minds during planning and implementation processes, not as an afterthought or when someone makes a special request. We don’t have to have all of the answers, but we do need to ask the right questions. Consider adding an accessibility checklist to your planning process for events, programs, facilities, and technology

3. Online connections ARE “real-life” connections

When you are able to have social connections in person and move about the world with few barriers, it can be easy to view your online connections as separate from “real-life” relationships.

In recent years, criticism of over-connection and over-sharing on social media have become part of our cultural dialogue. But for people with barriers to regular in-person interactions—including attending events—the online tools which we are all suddenly dependent on have been a lifeline, well before the pandemic.

It’s a position of privilege to view only “in real life” interactions as legitimate. Human connection can take many forms, and in-person is not inherently better or more meaningful than other methods.

4. The digital divide is real

Not everyone has the same access to technology. People experiencing poverty may not have ready access to a computer, tablet, or smartphone. People living in rural areas may not have stable, reliable internet. And older adults may have much less comfort or experience navigating tools like video conferencing and social media platforms. 

Technology is meant to serve people—and it takes people to implement these tools, to teach others how to use them, and to troubleshoot problems when they don’t work as designed. Often technology is treated as a luxury when we are facing limited organizational resources, but this global outbreak has clearly demonstrated how technology and the staffing to support it is a critical piece of our infrastructure.

5. We need to ask the experts

"I feel as though, for the first time, the entire world is having to move away from the theory of accessibility into immediate application of it." - Monica McMyne, CEO of RICARES

People with access needs know best—and it would be foolish not to use their expertise. We don’t need to fumble through this in the dark. Folks with first-hand experience are available to guide us, and we should seek them out.

As disability activist Kerry Sheehan told us in Part 1 of this piece, “We’ve been doing this for years. And we’ve been doing it on our own.” Beside the feelings of isolation and frustration though, she also has a message of hope: “We can get through this. Everybody can. If we all rely on each other.”

6. When the pandemic ends, don’t go back

It’s to be expected that you long for a return to “normal.” Even when your normal could be improved upon, the comfort of what’s familiar is real. But we shouldn’t be so focused on going back to how things were before that we ignore the chance to create a better normal for everyone. 

This global health crisis has shone a floodlight on the deep inequities across so many human rights arenas, from food and housing security to basic health care. Community care and mutual aid have flourished in response. Because the only way to get through something like this is together—but there will be an “after COVID” too. We have the opportunity to take what we’ve learned during this crisis and use it to create a more accessible, equitable future—and we have the responsibility to try. 

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What have you learned about accessibility during the COVID-19 pandemic? Share with us on Facebook.

Ashley Fontaine

Ashley Fontaine is a writer, mental health professional, and former nonprofit executive director. She’s on a mission to eliminate “we’ve always done it that way” from our collective vocabulary by helping leaders focus on possibilities rather than limitations. She believes organizational culture is the key to productivity and staff retention.

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