As the new vaccines begin to surge into the arms of our friends, families and neighbors, many of us are starting to envision what life after COVID-19 may look like. The pandemic has changed us, and some of those changes look like they might be permanent. Some might even be positive.
Every time someone in a web gathering bemoans the virtual meeting spaces and longs to be in person again, my soul dies a little bit. It’s not that I don’t see the value of in-person gatherings, but I have also witnessed the widely expanded accessibility that virtual meeting spaces offers. Those in-person meetings are great for the dominant group – the extroverts, the able-bodied, the people close to the geographic or political hubs. For those of us who are introverts or who have to travel or who encounter physical or social barriers, meeting virtually has become the great equalizer.
Plenty of research is available showing the heightened levels of isolation and loneliness historically experienced by people with disabilities. In some cases, those levels of isolation have been exacerbated during the pandemic. Residents of group homes and other long term care settings have had restricted access to visitors off and mostly on for almost a year. I suspect we all know a high-risk friend or family member who has hardly left the house since last March.
However, for people with good access to technology, the pandemic has broken down barriers. You remember all those great face-to-face experiences that people have taken for granted and are now missing? Those were the exact experiences that some people have not been able to join.
The barriers to these activities vary, but some typical ones include: transportation, physically inaccessible spaces, lack of personal support or medical conditions that limit activity and keep some folks homebound.
But now, life is online. We can easily attend social gatherings, classes, meetings and even public participation events from the comfort and accessibility of our own homes. I hear countless stories of people with disabilities who have had the world suddenly open to them. A millennial has become active in her synagogue in ways she never dreamed. A grad student is finally able to focus on her virtual classes rather than navigating an inaccessible campus.
Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of people with disabilities who have faced increased isolated by the pandemic. But before those who are able-bodied rush to dismiss the newfound digital connections that have been made, we need to listen to those who have found the access they deserve online.
There are still accessibility considerations we need to make in the virtual world, such as captioning, interpretation and audio description services. Yet overall, we have learned how to make the world more accessible. Let’s make sure we don’t lose that ground we’ve gained in our attempts to regain “normalcy.” The old normal was only working for some of us.
Tara Kiene is president and CEO of Community Connections Inc.