These are difficult times. By now it has dawned on most that lockdown is no holiday. The economic, social and personal ramifications of the global COVID-19 pandemic are far-reaching. Businesses face severe financial pressures and uncertainty as do their workers. Families and friends must cope with the fact that they may not see each other face-to-face for some time. As for those living on their own, the feeling of isolation and loneliness is a very real threat to their physical and mental health. But what about those with disabilities? They are already on the periphery of society. How are they coming to terms with the new normal? Does technology offer them a chance of greater connectivity as the world moves online or has their feeling of isolation become ever more magnified?
In the beginning
When the UK government announced we were going into lockdown on 23 March 2020, there was certainly a positive reaction from most sectors. The BBC seemed to go into overdrive proving, along with our truly amazing NHS, just what a valuable service they provide. Celebrities far and wide offered support through social media, staging everything from weekday workouts to heart-warming live-from-their-own-living-room gigs. Indeed, technology and social media, in a way, have come into their own, enabling people to stay connected throughout the COVID-19 crisis.
Technology has also allowed certain businesses to keep operating. The many supermarkets supporting online deliveries and click-and-collect have proved invaluable. As for the essential work of web-based wine merchants continually supplying the country, the crucial lifeline they have maintained has helped keep a nation sane! Video conferencing platforms such as Zoom and Skype have also helped companies as well as friends and family stay in touch across the UK and the globe and whilst it can never replace hugging and holding a loved one, it’s far better than the alternative.
Lockdown – a potential paradox for the disabled community?
There is no doubt that the technologies mentioned above have benefitted the disabled community too. I have read a number of stories relating to disabled people who have found that the current situation and the global move online, has been a bit of a leveller.
“While the coronavirus pandemic has led to unprecedented restrictions for billions of people,” Francis Ryan writes in The Guardian, “for many with disabilities, the lockdown has paradoxically opened up the world.”
In many ways this is true. Whilst famous artists, are offering free online concerts, which we all can attend, museums and art galleries have set up virtual tours accessible to all. Everything from wine tastings to book clubs seem to be going digital, welcoming those who were previously excluded.
Faced with the prospect of having to adapt to social distancing measures that could be in place long after lockdown is lifted, universities are also looking at radical ways of putting whole academic courses online. This could further break down barriers to those who have limited mobility and face real challenges when it comes to access.
Better employment opportunities for disabled people?
Furthermore, as companies look to re-align working practices to cope with the new normal, they are having to make a genuine commitment to remote working. Recently I caught up with one of the clients of my recruitment business. She was saying that whilst a significant number of companies have had the tools to enable staff to work remotely, it is not something that that has necessarily been encouraged by all. Now, however, it is a necessity and corporations are finding that the platforms to enable them to do this are already in place. Should companies truly embrace remote working as a genuine part of their culture, surely the number of roles that can be performed by disabled people working from home will increase and all for the better.
The other side of the story
But to say that the global pandemic is bringing disabled people into the fold would be grossly inaccurate. Whilst technology has clearly opened many doors for some members of the disabled community, others feel increasingly isolated and marginalised.
For every positive account I read of disabled people benefitting from this online migration, I come across two more reports of those who feel even more forgotten about and left behind due to COVID-19. From the practical day-to-day challenges of securing a supermarket home delivery slot, to the more harrowing stories of disabled people unable to receive the hands-on support they need as well as the lack of PPE equipment circulated to social workers who care for them.
A recent survey by the Office of National Statistics (“ONS Survey”) highlights the challenges facing disabled people during this crisis, both physical and mental. The survey which was taken from 27 March to 13 April reports that 45.1% of disabled adults are very worried about the effect the coronavirus pandemic is having on their life whilst only 30.2% of non-disabled adults share the same concern.
Equally revealing are the statistics which demonstrate disabled adults are significantly more likely than non-disabled adults to spend too much time alone. The ONS Survey shows that around 35.0% of disabled adults felt they were spending too much time on their own whilst only 19.9% of non-disabled adults felt isolated in a similar way.
Coronavirus may not discriminate, but lockdown does
Whilst it has been repeatedly said that COVID-19 does not discriminate, this is, in reality a rather glib, meaningless soundbite. The fact remains that some disabled people are far more exposed than non-disabled people and feel the effects of the current crisis far more acutely.
Lockdown, whilst absolutely necessary to curb the spread of the virus, is a very blunt tool. The UK Government has gone some way to adapting the curfews for those who really need it, such as people with autism and learning difficulties. Nevertheless, grave inequities remain. People classified as ‘extremely vulnerable’ can self-register for support eg for food parcels. However, those with certain conditions such as cancer or motor neurone disease have been excluded.
Coupled with the fact that many services for disabled people have been shut down, the picture for some of the most vulnerable in society seems rather bleak.
We’re in this together
One interesting statistic from the ONS Survey is that disabled adults are as active in supporting their communities as non-disabled. The survey reported that a similar proportion of disabled (64.9%) and non-disabled adults (63.1%) said they had checked on neighbours who might need help at least once. Much has been made of the fact that we’re all in this crisis together. Clearly, the disabled community has taken this on board. It is important that we all pay attention to the affects these strange times are having on all sectors of society, lest some of the most vulnerable be completely forgotten.