Pandemic Creating Greater Accessibility for Some with Disabilities
If there are silver linings to this coronavirus pandemic, one of them is how our new ways of doing things have allowed for greater accessibility for some people. In the last several months, Lucia Rios has noticed her work and social life become so much more accessible.
Born with spina bifida, Rios uses a wheelchair — and occasionally crutches — to get around. Thanks to recent changes in processes across the state for many businesses, she now has her choice of nearly every restaurant and store when it comes to pick up or delivery. Things that seemed like a special accommodation before, have now become standard. Everything from happy hours to government meetings are more accessible since they are taking place through her computer screen.
“What I saw as accommodation became a legitimate way of accessing goods and services. I’m not saying accommodation isn’t authentic, but you need to ask for an alternate way to get what you need. When I say, ‘Can I get an accommodation?’ the alarms often go off for those who don’t understand,” said Rios.
Shifting the conversation
She credits the quarantine that accompanied the pandemic for shifting the conversation about access and inclusion. Remote work is just one of the many ways people without disabilities are embracing a culture of alternative access.
“If we look at how we are adapting to the non-contact world because of COVID-19, you can see how adaptable accommodations can be,” said Rios, adding that once quarantines and social distancing are done, she hopes people don’t stop making access and inclusion an important topic.
Remote working for Rios means she doesn’t have to spend energy getting to work or driving to meetings with clients. Each stop requires pulling out and putting together her lightweight wheelchair, and then re-packing it when she is ready to leave. Everything takes a little longer. Just getting through a building’s front door can be exhausting if she must battle rain, snow or wind as she maneuvers her wheelchair inside.
As a disability activist, Rios is excited to see the shift in mindset. Isolation, inaccessible locations and attitudes have been a longstanding battle for the disability community, she pointed out.
Breaking down barriers
After listening to Rios’ concerns, the government of Ottawa County, where she lives, is considering continuing televised commission meetings so people can watch and participate remotely. Across the country, the mainstreaming of voting by mail also made civic participation more inclusive.
For Rios, frequent barriers to her participation in events have been stairs, non-working elevators, back-door entrances — even high-top tables. She often doesn’t get invited to fun activities due to the assumptions of others or lack of physical access. And other times, she doesn’t accept those invites if she worries navigating parking and restroom options will be too overwhelming.
With the lengthy lockdown, millions of non-disabled people are experiencing for the first time how it feels to have external barriers preventing them from participating in everyday life. The groundbreaking Americans with Disabilities Act — made law in 1980, the year Rios was born — has resulted in policies and practices in place to make public spaces, workplaces and other aspects of society more accessible. However, many barriers still exist for Rios and others with disabilities.
“Personally, I don’t want to go back to business as usual,” Rios said. “I want my community to continue to be mindful of those with disabilities, and how adaptable we were during a crisis to include everyone. It shouldn’t take a crisis to include people with disabilities. I’m a firm believer that accessibility — in various forms — is good for everyone.”
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Photo credit: Getty