Although Melbourne and parts of Victoria are still struggling with lockdown, in other parts of Australia restrictions are easing. Travel is being permitted between states and territories and we are moving towards a ‘new normal’. But for people living with disabilities it’s essential that it isn’t a mere reversion to the way things were before. New online options have made it possible for disabled people to be more included in work, socialising, and society. It would be a travesty to lose those now.
Goldele Kwok is a young woman who has benefited from telehealth appointments. Goldele, who has complex PTSD and bipolar disorder, has been able to save her energy to do things she enjoys instead of exhausting herself driving across town for medical appointments. Other doors opened for Goldele too. She attended Limmud, a Jewish festival, online.
“In the past I’d probably only been able to attend for a couple hours then go home. But I was able to attend the whole thing because on Zoom I could just take a break and rest a bit,” she said.
Access issues limit meaningful social experiences
In Australia, disabled people are less likely to graduate Year 12, to be employed, and to get a bachelor’s degree. Mostly, this is due to access issues that limit meaningful social experiences and job opportunities. But what COVID has shown us is that it’s possible and easy to host online panels, move university lectures online, or let employees work remotely.
“Before, people would say they weren’t sure about making accommodations. They’d say ‘they have to think about it’ or ‘they have to ask for senior approval’. If it’s only a minority, we think we don’t have to do it. That was the thinking,” Goldele said.
“As a society, we need to reflect on why it took us so long to make things easier and why it took a crisis to do that,” she added.
Virtual access not inferior
Hanna Cormick has also benefited from virtual access to services. She has Ehlers Danlos Syndrome with comorbidities like Mast Cell Activation Syndrome which causes her to have allergic reactions to a wide range of triggers. To avoid life-threatening anaphylaxis, she has been isolating at home for five years.
Since the pandemic began, she’s been offered more work opportunities. Some organisations Hanna works with, including Platform Live and East Riverina Arts, have committed to providing online options for participants and employees.
“It’s important to see virtual access not as an inferior replacement, but as a different form of communication,” Hanna said.
“It feels like I’ve been in an empty room for a really long time and now all these people have come and joined in the room.”
It took a pandemic for changes to happen that have increased inclusion. But these changes didn’t take place for disabled people. In order to include disabled people, it’s vital that accessible practices are continuously adopted. When society starts to welcome disabled people, and make it possible for them to be a part of conversations, it’s then possible to know what changes need to be made.
“I’m really concerned that things will go ‘back to normal’ because the way things were for people in my situation wasn’t okay. And to go back to that, to a system which is incredibly inaccessible and exclusionary? We don’t need to,” Hanna said.
A golden opportunity to redesign how we work
Around 20 per cent of Australians have a disability: 34 per cent have environmental sensitivities that make it difficult to leave the home, and up to 50 per cent have chronic illness. For the 2.1 million working Australians with a disability, this pandemic has proven that we can work differently. We must not miss this golden opportunity to redesign how we work.
“I hope the experience of the pandemic will make people think of who is missing out on things and how they can be included. We do want to be involved in the world in a cultural and social sense,” Hanna said.
There is no suggestion that the whole world needs to move online. For some, virtual access has increased barriers. But disabilities are diverse, so the options we present to people should be, too. We’ve made some progress, but we can’t stop now.
“Those of us who don’t get to go back into the world after the pandemic are quite afraid we’ll be left out and forgotten again,” Hanna said.
While many people are starting to leave isolation for the first time in months, we can’t forget the people who have experienced isolation for years.
Haley Zilberberg is a Townsville-based freelance writer and social worker from Florida. She’s passionate about disability advocacy and currently works as the Emerging Young Leaders Project Officer at Youth Disability Advocacy Service. She recently graduated with her Master of Marketing Communications from the University of Melbourne.