There are choirs of voices who were largely unheard until COVID-19 demanded that life become virtual. As the world begins to revert to “normal”, people living with chronic illness and disability wish to define a new normal instead of going back to the way things were when not all voices were permitted.
Almost overnight, we witnessed innovative ideas that would allow for virtual work. We learned that we could conceive of community events differently too. For those who had long requested the ability to work from home because of disability, this instant accommodation was both a delight and a damning commentary about the intolerance of difference.
In the spring of 2020, community participation was made more accessible for those not entirely dependent on closed captions, a screen reader, or in need of image descriptions in order to know the content of the presentation slides. These exclusions are a reminder that technology can take as equally as it gives if we do not ensure that our technology is inclusive.
22 percent of Canadians identify as disabled, according to a 2017 Statistics Canada survey. Having a disability means there is a greater chance of having the additional barrier of poverty. Some people with disabilities are still excluded from our virtual world despite the birth of widespread virtual access. As a society, we do not seem bothered that many people with disabilities have no choice but to live in poverty.
For those fortunate to have both the required device and serviceable internet, a myriad of online events became possible. Participation in virtual events was made easier for those with disabilities, as one need not ask if an event was accessible only to discover that the venue meant they were accessible because staff would happily lift one’s wheelchair up and down the stairs. Barriers to participation were now universal as we all empathized with bandwidth woes, misbehaving mute buttons, and strident cats.
I am lucky. I was able to sign up for a range of virtual enrichment during the last two years. I have participated in workshops about storytelling, advocacy, data set bias, improvisation, writing, sound creation, accessibility, leadership, community betterment, art, and sentiment analysis.
Having the opportunity to commune online with other disabled artists has fuelled me. Disabled artists are experienced in finding ways to do things differently. We have flourished during the pandemic because adaptation is a muscle that needs to be constantly flexing in a world not built to include everyone.
Fortunately for me, the timing of COVID and the successful treatment for a long-suffered illness coincided. In May 2020 my cognition was largely returned to me after decades of being without. Thanks to a return to health and virtual opportunities, I have been able to participate in my community in ways I have not been able to do since the screech of a modem was required for online access.
My return to creative work has been entirely facilitated by the virtual nature demanded by the pandemic. I am saddened at the thought of going backwards while we “learn to live” with a virus that will inordinately affect my people. Those of us with pre-existing conditions or living with disability have always understood that we were not all ”in this together” but we really liked being incidentally included for the last two years.
That my precarious health will continue to restrict me to my home as mask mandates and cautions are lifted is the least of my worries. I fret that in the absence of virtual opportunity I will once again be isolated, just as I was before my wheelchair enabled me to leave my home and participate in my community again.
If we value inclusivity then we must continue to offer virtual options for the foreseeable future. People with disabilities and chronic illness want to be part of the community. We want the equity of being included, even on days when our bodies insist that we lay down but could still participate virtually. To be permitted relevance, even when not physically capable, is a gift beyond measure and it allows us to laugh in the face of ableism.
To ensure our future is inclusive we need to be thoughtful about the lessons we have learned about accommodation during COVID. We can decide that now is the time for a paradigm shift, rather than going back to a time when access was aspirational. Accessibility and inclusivity are dignities that should be the standard requirement and never merely optional.
Sioux Dickson is an accessibility advocate and artist living in Nogojiwanong. She chairs Peterborough’s Built Environment Sub-Committee, virtually.