Long before Covid-19 forced us all into lockdown, for thousands of disabled people across the UK, these isolating conditions were already part of everyday life. Lack of accessibility, appropriate support, alongside negative attitudes that still exist in the world today towards disability, mean that many disabled people are denied the opportunity to enjoy the things many of us took for granted in a pre Covid-19 world. However, when lockdown was announced on 23rd March 2020 we were all forced into isolation. Life as we knew it was turned upside down over night and with that came so many different changes, some of which I believe have been positive changes that disabled people have been fighting for long before Covid-19.
Here are five lessons I believe we can learn from lockdown to improve accessibility
1. Changes in pubs and restaurants
Before lockdown I often visited pubs and restaurants with my family and friends. After months of these being closed we were excited, despite being a little apprehensive about going back. Whilst visiting quieter, more spacious restaurants that relied on table service or mobile ordering seemed a novelty at first it suddenly dawned on me how these changes, whilst imposed to keep everyone safe actually creates greater accessibility for disabled people. During our recent trips to restaurants over the last few weeks there has been no squeeze to get through the tables with my frame, or fighting our way to the bar to order. I am definitely not the first disabled person and I won’t be the last to have experienced these difficulties from time to time, which without intending to, the new restaurant experience in a Covid-19 world has suddenly removed. Whilst restaurant owners will inevitably want to increase their table numbers again as soon as it is safe to do so and re introduce ordering at the bar, maybe this is a key time for them to consider how their accessibility could be improved.
I would love to see some of these measures become permanent. Something as simple as complete table service or mobile ordering can open up opportunities for many disabled people to visit restaurants that may have been avoided before, creating a whole new group of customers for pubs and restaurants, and can make the whole experience of eating out beneficial to both the customer and restaurant.
With the government’s advice to work from home where ever possible being a key part of lockdown, many businesses and organisations had to adapt and become flexible in the way they work quite literally overnight. I am extremely lucky to work for an incredibly supportive, flexible and adaptable organisation where working flexibly and in different ways was already part of the way we work. This is something my employer takes pride in as a Disability Confident Leader as it ensures everyone is able to work and make their contribution to the organisation in a way that suits them.
For many disabled people, being able to work from home with a greater degree of flexibility can be really helpful. However, disabled people are twice as likely than non disabled people to be unemployed (Scope 2018). Employers attitudes to taking on members of staff with disabilities, a lack of understanding about the support that is available and inaccessible working environments all contribute to this issue. But, as many workers have got to grips with working from home, many employers have began to realise that work doesn’t always need to happen in the office and working from home is possible for many jobs. This discovery has the potential to open up a whole new range of employment opportunities for disabled people that can be achieved successfully from home in a way that suits them. As many companies now begin to make working from home more permanent where possible, I would really encourage them to look into the Disability Confident Scheme if they haven’t already and consider how they can introduce more disabled talent into their organisations whilst also working from home.
3. Virtual events, theatre shows and concerts
Something I have personally really enjoyed during lockdown is the huge amounts of music and theatre events that have been streamed over social media or YouTube that I have watched from the comfort of my sofa. Every Friday and Saturday night celebrities have been DJ’ing from their living rooms, bands have performed their concerts using Instagram live, and hugely successful West End shows have appeared on YouTube. Before lockdown I was incredibly lucky to be able to go to the theatre often and to watch some of my favourite bands perform with my friends. However, I am all too aware that for many disabled people this wasn’t the case. A shortage of accessible seating, or a lack of sign language interpreted, audio described or captioned performances, means many disabled people miss out on the enjoyment of live entertainment. Streaming these performances over the internet from the comfort of home, and with greater accessibility in terms of subtitles and captioning, is something many disabled people have long been asking for, and with the arrival of a global pandemic they have suddenly appeared like never before.
Whilst venues are beginning to open up, I hope this trend doesn’t disappear. Instead, I would love to see a larger amount of entertainment events streamed via the internet making the enjoyment of this accessible to all. This would also introduce new audiences of disabled people into the entertainment industry to support everything it has to offer at a time where theatres and music venues need our support more than ever.
4. Virtual communication
I can’t be the only one who had never heard of Zoom before lockdown but almost overnight it became a hugely popular way for people to communicate with the others and the world outside of our own homes. Pub quizzes, Friday night drinks and birthday parties all moved into the virtual world, meaning everyone could still remain connected and enjoy some much needed, light hearted relief despite the lockdown restrictions. Whilst it is important to acknowledge that not everyone’s experience is the same, and some disabled people may need support to communicate virtually, for others the greater use of virtual communication has increased the opportunities disabled people have to connect with the world beyond their home. Personally, I have loved FaceTiming my Nan everyday and spending hours on a Zoom quizzes with my uni housemates which gave me the opportunity to spend more time than I normally would with them.
For thousands of disabled people across the country, despite lockdown easing, their isolation will continue as society’s lack of accessibility still restricts their opportunities on top of the continuing global pandemic. As we are slowly allowed to see more people in person again it is so important to remember the lifeline virtual communication can provide for so many disabled people, connecting them to the rest of the world in an accessible way. I hope its popularity can continue, and can connect those most isolated with family and friends, whether we are amidst a global pandemic or not.
5. Increased support networks
One final positive change to emerge from lockdown has been the increase in support networks available to disabled people and those most vulnerable who have been shielding for many months. Originally introduced by local councils and community groups, the support some disabled people have recieved to collect essential items like food and prescriptions from these groups have been a vital lifeline. As part of this service many areas have also offered befriending schemes, offering those shielding with the opportunity to speak to a volunteer on a regular basis, keeping them connected with the outside world. I have seen various news reports recently featuring people who have benefitted from this who comment on how important this has been to them.
I think what stands out for me most, is that many of these people were already isolated before the arrival of Covid-19 which often goes undetected. Whilst the pandemic has been devastating in so many different ways, I think it is vital we keep hold of these increased support networks for those most vulnerable as again, remaining connected to others is crucial at all times, regardless of Covid-19’s presence in our lives.
Whilst I believe the changes outlined above have began to make a positive difference to the lives of many disabled people, it is really important to acknowledge that despite the pandemic dominating our lives, the inequalities disabled people sadly continue to face have not gone away. New data from the Office for National Statistics suggests two thirds of the devastating deaths from Coronavirus in the UK, were disabled people. This is a shocking statistic that highlights in the starkest way the inequalities disabled people continue to face as they are easy to forget behind closed doors. Therefore, I hope amongst all this sadness, loss and negativity we can continue making progress with some of the positive changes I have mentioned above. I hope that as we all begin to navigate a new ‘normal’, this is a version of ‘normal’ that is far more inclusive and accessible to all, where the isolation and inequality thousands of disabled people have continued to experience long before this pandemic is no longer ‘normal’.
Thanks for reading!