The Pandemic is Accessible, Too

As COVID-19 swept the world in early 2020, people in country after country found themselves unexpectedly hampered. Getting to work and running errands meant making tough choices. Socializing became next to impossible. Architectural choices made decades ago became suddenly hostile to people’s wellbeing. “Sounds familiar,” chorused those of us who live with disabilities. None of this was new for us. We deal with these problems every day of our lives.

I’m a blind orphan from Morocco who scrapped her way to Arkansas on a Fulbright scholarship. I spent several years homeless after relatives beat me and threw me onto the streets. This taught me resilience and how to adapt to catastrophic situations. I know what it’s like when others think your life is worthless. I learned to raise my voice in spite of this and make it heard. 

In 2019, I wrote my master’s thesis on online communities for the blind and visually impaired. The research was informed by lived experience. Many of us with disabilities find it hard to navigate public spaces, so we meet online instead. Unlimited by distance and borders, we make friends with people all over the world. When COVID began, we compared notes anxiously about the situations in each of our countries. At first, many of us were terrified, sure COVID’s burdens would fall on us hardest of all. But after a few months, we began to realize something. We had an unexpected advantage.

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While preparing for my thesis defense, I was diagnosed with tumors that rendered me paraplegic as well as blind. Unable to get to class, I requested accommodations. My kindest professor tried to help me, but wasn’t familiar with videoconferencing technology and didn’t know how to support me. If this happened today, I have no doubt that even my worst professors would promptly send me a Zoom link, and I would do the work from home, and do it well. Assistive technology, once a foreign concept for most non-disabled people, has been mainstreamed in classrooms all over the world.

For many people with disabilities, getting to work is even harder than getting to school. For this reason, we’ve historically struggled to find jobs and keep them. Now online work and school are normalized, and therefore more accessible. I’m currently an online intern with the United Nations Development Program, and the fact that many of us work remotely, whether disabled or not, has leveled the playing field. Not all organizations are as flexible as the UN. Even now, many are stubbornly shuffling people back into their offices. I’m immensely grateful to the UN and the other organizations that are taking COVID’s lessons to heart.

Adapting to pandemic life was hard for individuals, too. As spring of 2020 turned to summer, then to fall, the stories mounted. A doctor tried to attend his traffic court hearing while operating on a patient. The New Yorker fired a writer for playing with himself when he thought his camera was off. If I’d done something like that, others would’ve blamed my disability, but these stories underscored just how absurd that double standard was. I’m grateful for technology’s capacities, but also conscious of its limitations. Swamped by stories of technological faux pas, my friends with disabilities and I soon realized this was something we could teach the non-disabled world.

Disabilities are never simply physical impairments. They result from disabling attitudes and poorly designed social infrastructure. Thanks to COVID, some of that is changing. I no longer have to navigate the outside world to feed myself; I can order groceries and have them delivered. People aren’t so quick to blame my blindness when technology betrays me because the same thing has happened to them. And if Long COVID has a silver lining, it’s that policymakers are rethinking how to deal with disabilities because so many more people have them.

Of course, it’s not all good news. In summer of 2020, I was staying in a communal home. The refrigerator was in a common area, so I had to wear a mask when getting food. Unable to smell anything, I put someone else’s orange juice in my coffee instead of milk. The next morning, I remembered what the orange juice bottle felt like, but the apple cider fooled me and went into my coffee instead! I’m lucky that I get to joke about these mishaps. For many, the fallout was far more severe. Deaf people can’t read lips when the speaker is wearing a mask. Even their devices struggle to transcribe mask-muffled words. People who use wheelchairs are finding it harder to get help from strangers in public, while in-home care has grown riskier and harder to come by, too. And then there are subtler problems. For example, sometimes I wonder, with so many more people using technology these days, what subconscious influences certain language has. After all, we don’t just turn off our cameras and microphones; we disable them. I’m “disabled,” too, but unlike a device that’s been turned off, there are many things I can do.

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One of these capacities—perhaps the most important one—is something many people with disabilities share. I’m good at adapting. I have to be. Every day, my disability forces me to find solutions to all sorts of social and logistical problems. I don’t have the luxury of getting frustrated or giving up when something doesn’t go my way. I have to find a new path forward and move on.

My hope is that more companies and institutions will begin to do the same. COVID would’ve been much easier for all of us if society had been more flexible, accessible, and accommodating before it arrived. As daily life begins to normalize, many may feel tempted to return to simpler ways. But those of us with disabilities don’t have that option. What we do have is the expertise to help society prepare for the next crisis. And make no mistake: there will be a next crisis. More pandemics are coming, and climate disasters, and socioeconomic collapses of all kinds, and we have to be ready. This century is going to be a tough one, but some of us have been toughing it out all our lives. Now’s the time to make our voices heard.

Let’s hold on to our awareness of the invisible challenges that everyone faces, whether grounded in technological limitations, disabling social attitudes, or inadequate infrastructure. Let’s remember how to offer help, and how to ask for it. Let’s keep insisting on accommodations and accessibility for all. Let’s do everything in our power today to make our institutions and ourselves more resilient, sustainable, and inclusive tomorrow.

Itto Outini Journalist with ABILITY Magazine | Founder and President of Fulbrighters with Disabilities | Disability Inclusion Specialist with UNDP

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