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VOICES

Opinion Restrictions may have eased, but the pandemic is far from over for disabled people

A culture of ableism means disabled people were forgotten as Covid restrictions eased, writes Rosie Farrell.

ONE IN SEVEN people in Ireland lives with a disability according to the CSO, and many more who don’t identify as disabled are on an immune-suppressing medication that places them at a higher risk of developing severe symptoms from Covid.

I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) at the age of 25 and within a few years, I went from running miles every day to living with mobility issues and chronic pain. After a bad relapse left me unable to drive in 2016, the company I work for was quick to allow me to work remotely.

It was something they had already been trialling and, as someone with a disability, being able to work from home was life-changing. It meant I could remain in employment. As we’ve all learned in the last two years, working from home has huge perks but 24/7, it can be isolating. However, it’s the trade-off I have to make for my health.

On top of that trade-off, during periods where I needed my wheelchair, much of the outside world became inaccessible. Every trip out of the house became carefully planned out; is there disability parking, is the location accessible? So when Covid hit, the world suddenly found themselves joining in with much of the isolation and restrictions some of the disabled community experience daily.

Suddenly we were all in it together and we were finding collective solutions. Events and classes I couldn’t attend in person pre-Covid moved online, social distancing meant more room for wheelchair users to navigate in the outside world – suddenly I found myself busier and socialising more than I had in years, albeit online. So we were all in it together … until we weren’t.

Ableism

Contrary to Taoiseach Micheál Martin’s statement on Ireland reopening, where he said we had “weathered the Omicron storm” and that 21 January was “a good day”, he wasn’t speaking for everyone. For those with a disability or on immunosuppressants, the end was far from over that day and the risks were only likely to increase as safeguards eased.

Many people with disabilities already live in a perpetual state of isolation, not because of their conditions but because of inaccessibility. While the easing of Covid restrictions was of course welcome, given the horrendous effects they had on businesses, the dropping of restrictions like social distancing and Covid certs only further compounds the isolation vulnerable groups must endure.

By December last, half of people hospitalised from Covid were vaccinated but still at risk because of underlying conditions. This often means their bodies have a less effective response to vaccination and this is the case for me.

As I am on a high-level immune suppression therapy to manage my MS, my risk of severe Covid is high. This means not only am I at risk of dying if I get Covid, but even the ‘weaker’ Omicron variant could massively increase my disability level, undoing the years of rehabilitation and physio I have endured to get to where I am today.

The easing of Covid restrictions has further perpetuated the ableist attitudes that have become ingrained in Irish society. Ableism fosters a prejudiced treatment of people with disabilities under the premise that we are inferior to and less important than others.

An ableist society is built in favour of the able-bodied: it is a world in which most buildings and spaces are not accessible. A world in which disabled people are regularly denied their basic human rights. Ableism lives in the unwelcome statements that alienate people already on the margins – and as Covid has spread, this mindset has gained a notable level of traction. To date, from what I can see, there is not much political appetite to change this mindset yet in Ireland.

“She/he had an underlying condition” became an all-too-common response when many heard of a Covid death or hospitalisation. Perhaps meant to offer comfort to the ‘healthy’, it ignored the human cost. Each Covid statistic was someone’s daughter, sister, mother, friend.

This fixation with whether someone had an underlying condition or not is ableist in nature. At its heart, it holds firm the idea that having a disability or an underlying condition means you are more accepting or prepared for death by Covid, that it somehow makes more sense.

Collective efforts

Fighting Covid has been and needs to remain a collective battle. Vaccine boosters are of vital importance and the Government needs to continue to encourage this.

While the wearing of masks is still required for now in the likes of shops, schools, hairdressers and on public transport, people with disabilities need the public at large to keep wearing them as much as possible and we need legislators to keep insisting that this happens.

The worry for many people with underlying conditions is that the Irish Government will follow the UK in removing mandatory mask-wearing in all other settings. What is a relatively minor inconvenience for most people is the difference between safely leaving the house for many people with underlying conditions.

While many vulnerable people remain in isolation, that is not an option for all. Many people with disabilities and underlying conditions are teachers, healthcare workers, students or work in other areas where working from home is not within their grasp. Maintaining mask-wearing and reintroducing social distancing would mean that, like everyone else, they too could safely go about their daily lives.

Ableist-led policy

Many of us with underlying conditions avoid socialising and places where there is more risk. Doing so is an additional layer of protection I can take to stay safe but I don’t wish this isolation on everyone. I appreciate that it’s important for people to socialise and it’s important that businesses find their feet again. With Covid still posing a threat, a meal out or a drink with friends isn’t possible for many vulnerable people – but we do not begrudge others that experience.

All people with disabilities ask is that we can have a small taste of freedom too, that – at a minimum – we can continue to safely attend work, school and go to the shops. To assume we should simply lock ourselves away is ableist and it strips us of our rights. Why does society believe that able-bodied people deserve the right to normality far more than others, even if their normality places the vulnerable at a massively increased risk?

Many in the disabled community hoped that the limiting experience of lockdowns, quarantines and restrictions would help people to better understand the challenges people with disabilities face. Instead, nothing seems to have changed and that’s the real tragedy of life with a disability in general – it’s not the ups and downs of life with these conditions.

It is the way society treats people with disabilities and the barriers to inclusion it constructs. Covid and the Government’s indifference in considering the needs of vulnerable groups have sadly further proven just how far we still have to go in achieving recognition and equality.

Rosie Farrell is a designer and disability advocate who lives with Multiple Sclerosis. She was featured on RTE’s Big Life Fix in 2020. She blogs and shares her artwork at www.creativelyrewired.com.

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