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Monday 11 December 2023 Dublin: 7°C

Living with the 'new normal' is extra difficult with a disability - here are some small changes that would help

Carrie Williams, who lives with a debilitating illness outlines the challenges Covid-19 has brought for people with disabilities.

WE ARE ALL living through the changes Covid-19 has bought to our daily lives and none more so than those, who like me, identify as living with a disability. From battles with hand sanitising units that are just that little too high on the wall or just that little too hard to press, the new restrictions introduced to combat the spread of this virus has highlighted the need for accessibility to be included in all decisions.

Firstly, what do I mean by accessibility? This is really the ways in which retailers, colleges, and restaurants, etc. can be visited and used by all in society. With regards to Covid-19, this includes an online presence, such as websites that are compatible with Assistive Technology, that offer closed captioning and transcripts.

Pre-Covid there were accessibility barriers, however with restrictions now in place those of us with a disability are having to adapt to a society that can feel even more challenging to navigate.

At first, I didn’t consider how this would impact me, with a Degenerative Neurological Illness I live independently and although I rely on some Assistive Technology pre-Covid I never felt that shopping or going to the bank was a major problem.

My new reality

That all changed the first time I entered a restaurant and was asked first to fill in my contact details (I have poor dexterity), use a wall-mounted hand sanitiser (that was too high for me to reach) and order through a perspex screen while wearing a mask.

Luckily, I am quite outspoken and will make myself known, but this got me thinking about how the changes Covid-19 has forced us to introduce has resulted in a potentially less accessible society.

I am completely in favour of the new protective measures, however, I hope that with more awareness about accessibility needs, restaurants and shops will consider making small adjustments to ensure everyone can visit without being embarrassed at the door.

This usually happens over something as simple as a hand sanitising unit that is too high to reach from a wheelchair. This can be overcome by each of us carrying our own, but other issues are more complex.

With more people with disabilities working from home this is highlighting the number of programs incompatible with Assistive Technology. Many of us within the disability community have been pushing for better Assistive Technology for years, yet the vast majority of online content is still not fully accessible.

Similarly, methods of communicating, such as handing over an iPad or communication boards, are no longer acceptable in light of Covid-19. This is forcing many people with disabilities into difficult situations to make themselves understood.

Awareness amongst retailers of the challenges those of us with disabilities face during these times will increase understanding and compassion. After all, everyone is having to adapt.

What will help?

There are many ways that businesses can help by making simple adjustments. Retailers could support customers with added needs by collecting contact information in new ways. Restaurants and other proprietors could offer sanitiser at different heights or in automatic dispensers, and all could find ways to communicate while still maintaining restrictions.

This will ensure that those of us living with disabilities continue to be able to shop independently and not be forced to rely on others to complete tasks we could otherwise do ourselves.

Small changes can have a huge impact on those of us trying to maintain our independence.

On a personal level, a basic understanding from retailers that keeping up with the restrictions is a little harder for me and that I am sometimes a little longer getting my hands sanitised, writing down my tracking information or making myself understood through a mask, due to my physical limitations would help.

I want to do my part to keep everyone, including myself, safe during these times but that is a little more complex due to my Neurological illness which in many instances hasn’t been factored in by retailers.

I am very independent, I do not want sympathy but pre-Covid if I were struggling in premises, such as a bank, I could simply ask for a little bit of help. Covid-19 has removed that support as we no longer touch each other’s possessions.

It is in those moments that the vulnerability and frustration a disability brings to the situation is highlighted. Compassion goes a long way and I hope after this shared experience we will all come out of this more aware of each other’s needs.

There have been some positives in the past few months though. With the world forced online during the pandemic many people who identify as living with a disability have been able to access the world – education, courses, and experiences – like never before.

With a computer and internet hooked up, the world has opened up in a way I hope will continue in the post-Covid era.

Better still, in a world that sometimes views someone with a disability as being less able, being seen as a square on a screen via Zoom has created a level playing field. I hope will make many post-Covid remember that those of us with disabilities have a lot to offer and that removing accessibility barriers ensures our participation.

Equally, some shops have realised the need for accessibility and are flexible while still ensuring safety for everyone.

We are all in this together. 2020 has been extraordinarily tough, and with a little compassion and thinking outside the box, we have the chance to improve accessibility for everyone.

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