Blog #2: COVID Times & ADA
By: Amelia O’Hare
I have been thinking back to the day my employer announced that we would be working from home due to COVID-19. March 14th, 2020 was a bittersweet day for me personally. I received a much anticipated acceptance letter to my dream Masters program to study landscape architecture and urban design the same day we went into lockdown. Like many others, I believed this would soon pass and be a temporary situation, lasting maybe a few weeks or a month or two at best. I remained optimistic and continued planning for graduate school. Planning to move to a new state 2531 miles from home, with a disability has its challenges. In order to move and live independently, it means finding, screening, interviewing, hiring, and training personal care assistants to help get me out of bed, get dressed and other daily needs. It also means securing accessible housing with an elevator, wide doorways, an ADA bathroom and kitchen and enough space for my powered chair. It also includes researching the new city and area in terms of accessible and affordable transportation, access to the built environment, walkability, and of course the big question of social acceptance; will I be welcomed and have opportunities to form friendships and be included? These are all normal parts of my routine when considering a move or planning travel to a new country. While many places are still inaccessible and unwelcoming, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has made significant changes to the way people with disabilities can move around our cities and towns.
When it became clear that COVID will be with us for much longer than we anticipated, my questions became centered around assessing my risk of exposure to the virus. One of my top concerns is will I be able to ensure that my personal care assistants are staying safe and could I catch COVID from them? Questions such as who would be handling my wheelchair if I flew, how I would get around once I land at the airport, and how would I safely get basic items like groceries? What about the exposure risk on campus? Eventually, I decided to delay graduate school.
These concerns have not really changed, as they still come up every time a family member goes to the store, when I go for a walk, or even when others who say they have been safe come by for a visit. COVID-19 does not only affect me, it also affects my entire family who I live with from my low risk teenage siblings to my parents who are my caregivers. Wearing a mask, going to get groceries and practicing social distance is not up for debate. In fact, choosing who will get groceries is like choosing a victor for the Hunger Games. It also means sacrifice for my younger siblings and parents as we enter the unknown of Fall and back to school.
While ADA has made it easier for many to have some freedom, I have never felt more isolated because of my own disability and chronic health concerns. There are of course positive things and inclusive efforts that will come from this COVID time. For example, more employers are allowing employees to work remotely, more virtual meetings are requiring subtitles, and more touch-free technology is in the works. Obviously, there is immediate demand for these types of accommodations because of COVID, but it is nothing new to people with disabilities who have been pushing and fighting for years.
Living with diminished lung function has made the threat of COVID very real for me. I see people going on vacation to the beach, gathering with friends and families, eating out at restaurants, planning on going back to school, going on with life as if everything is back to normal, and debating on wearing masks. I cannot help but feel like I am being left behind. Before COVID, I could travel everywhere both for work and pleasure; one of my favorite past adventures was traveling to Italy and studying abroad in Hong Kong and Taiwan. I lived a very active life that would not have been as possible before the ADA. The built environment has improved by removing physical barriers and opening the way for educational, professional, social and recreational opportunities.
This pandemic has highlighted and shines the spotlight on a critical area of inclusion that still needs a lot of work – social attitudes towards people with disabilities and chronic health issues. When I see people refusing to wear a mask, it is clear to me that they do not care about others who are at risk. It is clear to me that you (anti-maskers/COVID deniers) do not value my voice or what I bring to the table and the contributions I have yet to make in my community and the world. This year’s ADA celebration feels like pre-ADA, when people with disabilities had to fight for the basics, basic inclusion, and consideration. We are still a marginalized group. Putting politics and biases aside and wearing a mask and not rushing to open everything during a global pandemic is simply showing compassion for each other and keeping each other safe. I feel that as things do open back up, people will return to their normal lives, bond in the office, work on team projects and get ahead in the careers, forge new friendships, meet out at restaurants and other fun venues, go on with grad school, and plan life-changing trips while I am forced to remain shuttered in the safety of my home while life continues on.
This year as we celebrate the Americans with Disability Act turning 30, I think we should also look at how much more work needs to be done. It is time to take disability rights to the next level and examine who is being excluded as we rebuild our spaces and workforce and form new policies. COVID will force many changes to the built environment, the way we travel, and the way we work. We need the voice of disability to be in the conversations. I also think that during this pandemic and celebration of ADA, we need to challenge the way we view people with disability and chronic health conditions. I fear that as America reopens and continues to move forward, leaving people with disabilities behind will take us back to square one. So as we all are (hopefully) able to stay home, let's plan for a future that is inclusive, offers opportunities, and is welcoming for everyone. But let's also work on general compassion for one another and recognize who you are forgetting.