I have always been a fan of Charles Darwin. In my sixth-grade biology class, adaptation was taught as a concept that grew into Darwin’s theory of natural selection — but for me, it had a different meaning. It was the first time I learned there was a name for everything I had always done since birth. Growing up with a neuromuscular disease meant that adaptation was built into every part of my existence. As a lifetime wheelchair user, I learned at a young age that adaptation was a critical part of my ability to fit into an able-bodied world that wasn’t designed for me.
With the rise of COVID-19 and the drastic changes our world has experienced over the last several months, my intrinsic sense of adaptation has been adopted by the world at large. This pandemic is arguably one of the most significant periods in history where people have had to rethink the way they do ordinary things. Globally, people who previously could access their environments with ease suddenly became “disabled” in some ways from the life they knew. Our collective response was to adapt, innovate and revolutionize the way we operate in the COVID-19 environment. Rather than sitting back complacently, we rapidly created new ways to utilize technology and implement strategies to create a more accessible world.
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As a result, this pandemic has the potential to add new perspectives and urgency to a number of long-standing disability issues. Disabled people — myself included — have advocated for accommodations throughout our lives to help us overcome barriers. And now, some of these accommodations are considered normal practice.
For example, delivery options skyrocketed across companies and service providers. It has become common practice for establishments to offer services like curbside pick-up and other accommodations to make access easier. This may seem like a small thing, but when it is challenging to access your community because of a disability-related barrier, chronic health condition, lack of wheelchair-accessible transportation, or other struggles, small adaptations like this go a long way.
With the rise of the pandemic, flexible work arrangements, including telecommuting some or most of the time, have also become mainstream. These employment opportunities have been life-changing for people with disabilities who struggle for various reasons to be in the office during normal business hours — whether because of a health condition that requires flexible scheduling, lack of caregiving support during the day, difficulty with transportation, or any other number of disability-related concerns.
Also, including someone via video chat when they cannot access a venue — whether because of a global pandemic requiring social distancing or lack of disabled-friendly access — has become a daily occurrence. Concerts, classes, church services, and other public events that weren’t always accessible to people with disabilities for various reasons are now being streamed online. People within the disabled community who couldn’t participate before now have the opportunity to do so.
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If we as a society are committed to maintaining these inclusive spaces, we must consider the ramifications of reverting to old traditions in the future post-pandemic world. If we abandon the creative ways that we have included people over the last several months, we will be regressing in our social justice efforts. There are over 1 billion people in the world with some type of disability who could benefit from keeping pandemic-related arrangements in place — not to mention the countless other demographic groups who could also benefit from accommodations like remote work arrangements (consider parents without childcare during the workday and low-income individuals who may lack reliable transportation).
As a global community, we have become experts in rethinking access. Darwin’s theories of adaptation and “survival of the fittest” are more prevalent now than ever, because our COVID-19 practices have allowed more people to fit into our global environment than ever before. We must continue adapting as our world evolves and continue accommodating those with limitations so they have equal opportunities. Abandoning our inclusive practices in the future post-pandemic world would perpetuate the oppression caused by ability privilege and push those with disabilities back on the sidelines. As a wheelchair-user with a neuromuscular disease — and also a licensed therapist and active community member — I finally have the rest of the world adapting alongside me. It’s about time.
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