Social Distance, Blindness and Coronavirus: How People With Disabilities Like Me Are Adjusting
I am standing in my neighborhood grocery store, waiting for Willy, one of the trusted workers who usually helps me with my shopping. As I reach out and grab his familiar shoulder, I realize that everything has changed: I’m reluctant to touch him.
I lost my sight about 10 years ago at the age of 21. Around 57 million Americans live with a disability; that’s about 20% of the population. Even during this global crisis, people with disabilities still get out of bed and move through life’s routines despite new threats to our health. In many ways, to us, nothing has changed, especially because social distancing is not always an option.
When I go shopping, or when I go for a run, I need someone’s help. I need to touch things, and now I have to remind myself to take extra steps to remain safe and healthy. For some of my friends, this situation is even more complex. They can’t isolate themselves like others do. They need hands-on help from other people to do daily self-care tasks.
Simply having a disability doesn’t by itself put someone at higher risk from coronavirus, but many people with disabilities do have specific disabilities or chronic conditions that make the illness more dangerous for them. Willy and I have had to change. I wear gloves. I wash my hands often. I get out only when necessary. We have had to rethink our approach to ensure both of us stay healthy in this new reality of ours.
The greater risks for our community may not stem from the actual virus, but from the disruptions in services and routines it causes. Some people with disabilities, like me, depend on regular help and support from others to maintain independence. In my case, Willy plays a critical role in allowing me to buy food and other necessities. Aides and caregivers may become sick, or they may stay home for fear of spreading the virus.
Some have been quicker to adapt than others. For me, it’s heartening to see how certain companies I interact with each day have transitioned to online platforms, but this change comes with a long series of questions. Are companies ready to provide productivity supports during this time of telework? Can this benefit us in the long run?
It is also painful to realize that accommodations that for years have been difficult for people with disabilities to obtain, are suddenly being rapidly adopted. Will this finally prove that it is not the actual facility, office or cubicle that makes us productive but how we are supported as an individual? Is there also potential for us to continue to move the conversation about mental health disabilities to a more public and healthy one? Many people may be experiencing symptoms and needing support right now but feel ashamed to ask for assistance.
I realize that I am fortunate. I am relatively healthy, I am able to work from home, and I actually think that during this crisis many companies will understand that they could have, and probably should have, been more flexible with work policies and accommodations. But I also know that many jobs will be lost in the coming weeks, and that just like in 2008, people with disabilities will often be among the last ones hired and the first ones fired.
Before and After: Iconic NYC locations affected by coronavirus
In February 2020, the employment-to-population ratio for working-age people with disabilities was historically high, yet it was only at 30.9%, compared to 74.8% for working-age people without disabilities. This gap is only going to get worse in the coming months. As we are all moving to an online existence, at least for the next several weeks, let’s remember that accessibility is key and benefits all of us.
My parents would tell you that my disability has taught me how to live despite my fears, how to navigate a world full of potential dangers. My hope is that in the coming weeks, we will apply the same energy to overcome our fears and come together; be there for each other to face this pandemic.
Catherine is special assistant to the president at the National Organization on Disability in New York.