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Opinion: The world should not fall into its old ableist habits as Covid re-openings continue

Matt McCann says despite the challenges of Covid, some welcome changes have come for those with disabilities and those changes should not be lost.

Matt McCann

COVID-19 HAS CHANGED the way the world works in numerous and dramatic ways. Since taking to the world stage, this virus has asserted itself and created a universal social disability for everyone, individuals, businesses and nations alike. It has, invariably, changed us all.

One positive note that this global pandemic has revealed, however, is that nothing is impossible for humanity when given the proper amount of focus, intention and support. 

As the world slowly begins to learn how to live in this post-pandemic society, we must be prepared not to slip back into the bad habits that made up the status quo of the old world.

Accessible progress

For years, people with disabilities have advocated for office jobs and similar positions that could be done remotely, to be made available to anyone who is unable to travel or who found travelling difficult due to their own specific health or accessibility needs.

As communication infrastructure and technologies grew in the past decade, this seemed inevitable. Yet it still took an unprecedented global crisis to make this now simple request become a reality.

Old excuses referencing the impracticalities and difficulties for implementing such policies appear to have been easily overcome with many sectors reporting an increase in productivity and overall better work-life balance being experienced by many.

Shops and restaurants now operating with social distancing measures allow people, with reduced or limited mobility, the chance to navigate more easily. Pick up and carry out services, which are beneficial for socially anxious and some neurodivergent individuals, are more widely available than before.  

These measures which were put in place to help people interact safely within a Covid world have inadvertently allowed more people from accessibility communities to engage more freely within their local communities and society at large.

As businesses and offices continue re-opening, we have a significant opportunity to keep some of the more beneficial aspects of these measures in the mainstream.

Slipping backwards

Not all these measures had a positive accessible impact, however. Poorly thought-out table placement for temporary outdoor dining has created additional obstacles for people with physical and visual disabilities, but this is just a symptom of a wider issue.

An issue that risks us returning to old, ableist ways of doing things. A risk that was perfectly encapsulated by what happened to Israel’s Water and Energy Minister, Karine Elharrar at COP26 recently.

Karine Elharrar, a wheelchair user, was unable to attend this crucial climate event with fellow leaders due to a failure in accessibility-related foresight, a month before International Day of People with Disabilities. This incident would have never happened had accessibility not been relegated to an afterthought, like it so often is. 

I have frequently experienced similar circumstances myself, being refused entry or being forced to put myself in an uncomfortable situation to accommodate a venue’s lack of accessibility.

On one occasion I had to struggle up a flight of stairs on stage to accept a prize for the work my own company, Access Earth, were doing for accessibility! At no point did the organisers think to themselves the simple, practical fact, how would I get on stage?

These experiences felt by Karine Elharrar and I are by no means unique to just the two of us and nor are they a rare occurrence. 

There are over one billion people in the world with a form of disability according to the WHO. This number is increasing due to demographic trends and increases in chronic health conditions, among other causes. 

In countries with life expectancies over 70 years, individuals spend on average about eight years, or 11.5% of their life span, living with disabilities.

Accessibility is a very real concern that everyone will face at some point in their lives and without conscious consideration towards accessibility needs, we will fall into the trap of designing environments we may all eventually age out of and exclude others from.

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Some wins

The good news is things are getting better. People the world over are embracing the ideals of universal design for universal access to shared spaces. Technology has been a great factor in helping drive accessible solutions and corporations and investors are waking up to this fact and are putting their money where their mouth is.

People with disabilities have $8 trillion in annual disposable income and globally we account for the largest ‘minority’ segment of the consumer population. This financial realisation has brought the focus, intention, and support to our, traditionally, underappreciated community.

My own company has recently launched our first public investment campaign with the aim of raising funds to enable it to continue to build the world’s largest accessibility database. We hope it will help those living with disabilities to access towns, community areas, parking, sports clubs and stadia safely and with confidence. The support so far has been incredible.

As consumers, if we wish to see a positive driving force behind the change for a more accessible future, it is imperative that we vote with our wallets and buy from and frequent locations that exist as positive accessible role models for other businesses. 

As workers, we must demand those certain policies, like working from home, become a standard practice and not the exception. 

As people, we must continue to understand that accessibility is a universal issue that affects everyone. We all at some point in our lives will require accessible support, be it from a temporary or lifelong health conditions, or due to being a parent pushing a buggy. Any society worth building, is one where everyone can contribute and participate in.

We stand at a historic crossroads where we get to decide the direction we go as a society. We should take what happened at the COP26 to Karine Elharrar as a red flag that we are risking slipping back into old, discarded habits and consciously turn towards a more universally accessible and equal future.

Matt McCann is the CEO and co-founder of Access Earth. Matt lives his life with cerebral palsy and used his personal lived experiences to create Access Earth and is building the world’s largest database of accessibility information. To find out more about Matt and Access Earth visit www.accessearth.com and to invest towards Access Earth’s mission visit https://www.sparkcrowdfunding.com/campaign/accessearth.

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Matt McCann

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