The novel coronavirus has spread globally over the past few weeks. While borders are closing and quarantine measures are hastily implemented, the impact on workers and businesses is already being felt.
Broadway has gone dark. Concerts and sporting events have been cancelled, and in the UK, Jeremy Corbyn has led the calls to suspend mortgage and rent payments for people effected by the virus.
But one of the biggest changes has been the sudden drive towards accessibility, as the accommodations that are usually needed by disabled people, become an international necessity.
Last week, the UK Chancellor announced plans to make it “quicker and easier” to access benefits, a tacit confession that the struggle many disabled people face to access support is a choice that can be undone when such restrictions impact the general population too.
Around the world, closed universities are implementing video lessons and a whole host of remote learning options, and many office workers have been told to work from home.
With accessibility suddenly becoming a priority, companies offering accessible software are reaping the rewards. The video meeting software company Zoom, saw its share price nearly double, and Google has made access to its Google Classroom software free, to help teachers manage coursework.
For disabled people like me, who have struggled to access work or education due to a lack of accessible options, the sudden enabling of these measures feels like a slap in the face. Apparently, accessibility really does matter, but only when it’s isn’t “just” disabled people asking for it.
But whether governments, employers, and the public realise it or not, the general inaccessibility of our society is already harming our response to the virus.
Under quarantine measures, as more of the general population join those of us already housebound, disabled people and the elderly are feeling the impact of existing accessible services buckling under the strain. Amazon prime’s deliveries are delayed, and healthy people panic-buying online has caused a shortage of necessities that those of us who can’t simply nip to the shops still need.
Similarly, delivery slots in most major supermarkets are now booked up for weeks, as shoppers clear out the shelves and force more and more people to shop online. The simple fact is that now these accessible measures are needed by growing numbers of people, the system is struggling to cope, and businesses who were late to implement remote working options have added to the strain.
Epidemiologists now advise that our best chance of coping with the outbreak is to “flatten the curve”, slowing the spread of the virus and hopefully avoiding the collapse of health and social care systems as it passes through the population. To do this, we need to stay indoors. We need to practice social distancing. And we need to rely on remote work, welfare support, and accessible delivery services to see us through the coming months.
But with many companies still encouraging their staff to come into the office, and sickness benefits failing to cover the cost of living across most of the country, there’s little doubt that the virus will continue to spread.
It’s difficult not to notice that in a truly accessible society, our response to quarantine measures would have been quicker and far more effective than it currently is.
If companies had already made accessible work a priority, there wouldn’t be so many delays or worries about sending workers home now that it’s necessary. If our welfare system was easily accessible to those who need it, and if benefits did indeed cover the cost of living, fewer people would feel forced to keep on working public-facing jobs despite the associated health risks.
Indeed, in a truly accessible world, the majority of our businesses and services would already have contingencies for workers who need accommodations, and the act of rolling them out across the general population would have been far less socially and economically painful than it is.
Sadly, accessibility has always been viewed as “special treatment” rather than equal access, and we are now seeing the result of decades of decisions to deny disabled people full rights applied to the rest of the country.
For now, the coming months will show us all both how easy it is to make work and education accessible, and how reliant we still are on our inaccessible working practices.
Perhaps, once the worst of the outbreak has passed, more people will realise that accessibility isn’t special treatment. In fact, accessibility saves lives, whether we’re in the middle of a global pandemic, or not.
Laura C Elliott is a disabled writer and journalist. Her work has been published by The Establishment, Huffington Post, and others. She hosts the podcast Visibility Today. You can find her on Twitter at @TinyWriterLaura.
Image: bazzadarambler, Flickr.