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Accessibility in Times of Crisis

Written by: Lauren Jett ‘20

Right now we are living through unprecedented times with COVID-19 changing the way of life for everyone across the world. This global crisis has turned daily life on its head. Social distancing measures are limiting face-to-face socialization and mandating that people stand at least 6ft apart, businesses are being forced to close, millions of people are losing jobs and their main source of income, and everyone is dealing with the fear of exposure. Because of this, we have all had to adapt to a new normal. It is quite evident that millions of people are suffering from the impacts of COVID-19, whether or not they have been directly infected with the virus. 

While many people are facing their own challenges and worries, those who have disabilities are facing the challenges of being a particularly high risk group. Not only for contracting the virus itself, but for facing other difficulties that may not be taken into consideration by the normate template that governs much of society’s perceived needs. Normate is a word used by Rosmarie Thompson-Garland that “refers to a privileged and de-stigmatized body representing a universal or ideal type”. The normate template is the idea that the world is designed with “normate” (primarily white, male, non-disabled) inhabitants in mind, and is often exclusionary of those who do not fit this mold. Aimi Hamraie describes this phenomenon well, saying,

“Rather than accounting for diverse body types, sizes, and abilities, the normate template privileges a small group of individuals in mainstream design, giving these individuals the appearance of normalcy or universality due to their fit in the environment.”

In times of crisis, especially, many non-normate people find their needs to be even less frequently considered. The coronavirus pandemic has led to an interesting situation regarding how accessibility is addressed in society. In some ways, this pandemic has shown just how exclusive our society can be. However, it has also allowed us to adapt and focus on accessibility in a different context, one where accessible accommodations are critical to the functioning of society. 

For those who live with hearing loss, reading lips and seeing facial expressions can be essential to communication with others. Currently, since medical guidelines encourage wearing a mask in public, many people who communicate through reading lips are feeling the exclusion and distance that comes with the barrier to their ability to communicate with others. Face masks traditionally don’t allow the lips to be seen through the material, however a college student in Kentucky has created clear masks to help combat this problem for the deaf and hard of hearing community.

With the pandemic raising concerns over access to food and other essential goods, and with no one knowing how long restrictions may last, many people were driven to the supermarkets and stores to buy goods in bulk to ensure they would not run out. Hordes of people have packed supermarkets and cleared shelves, which has been a source of concern for many elderly people and people living with disabilities. These communities of people are particularly at risk for contracting the virus and death from the virus, and these crowded spaces are quite unwelcoming to them for a variety of reasons. Because of this, many stores all across the United States have decided to open their doors exclusively to these vulnerable populations for a period of time each day. This article contains a helpful list of many of the stores participating in this effort to increase accessibility for all. 

One of the most widespread accessibility efforts has been the switch many companies and businesses have had to make to transitioning to working from home. Educational institutions have also made the switch to online instruction and learning. This has shown that it is possible to conduct these services remotely, which is something many people with disabilities have been advocating for for a while. However, it took a pandemic to allow for the widespread acceptance of “working from home” as a feasible alternative to working from a communal office space.

While these accessibility efforts are a step in the right direction to creating a more inclusive society, a lot more has to be done and the efforts cannot stop here. As Caroline Casey points out in this article,

“Many of these accommodations and adaptations are the same ones that disabled employees have sought for so long to have approved for their working lives in order to enable them to fully engage with and contribute to their careers meaningfully.”

If anything, the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us all how adaptable we can be. We should continue to adapt and we can use this time of uncertainty to think of ways to work towards a more inclusive society for all where accessibility is a primary concern in daily life.

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