Many are waiting for the COVID-19 quarantine executive order by the governor to be removed. It has become apparent to me as a person with a physical disability that some of what we’re experiencing might be a good thing for many of us with physical disabilities. What I mean by this is we’ve actually started to make our world more accessible such as widening our walkways to abide by that new six-foot social distancing rule.
Minneapolis has allocated roads to be dedicated as an extension of sidewalks. Two people using mobility devices might be able to stroll down the sidewalk together.
Restaurants will be more accessible for using mobility devices. There should be much less bumping into tables, chairs and people as a result of social distancing. I can’t tell you how many times my scooter has been bumped into as servers are trying to do their job. There should be less inappropriate touching of one’s mobility device, accidentally bumping into you, or asking you to move because you just don’t fit in that space!
Retail stores should have wider aisles as a result of this new dynamic. No more getting hooked on a hanger or fixture and dragging it across the store floor. (Yes, I have done this.) The list is endless in terms of what possibilities might occur for people with disabilities.
Our workspaces have changed from cubicles to open spaces. Now it’s back to cubicles. But cubicles aren’t always very accessible for people using mobility devices. Hopefully cubicles will become larger and will change to allow for social distancing.
And who knew that drive-through restaurants would become everybody’s staple for obtaining food! Minneapolis in 2019 passed an ordinance not allowing any new drive-through businesses, which was opposed by the disability community. The lesson learned here is never say never.
One of the best things that has happened in our community is that personal care attendants (PCAs) are now considered essential workers. Who would’ve ever thought a PCA would be considered essential! All of us in the disability community knew that they were essential way before this pandemic occurred. I hope they get that pay increase they all desperately need and deserve. This work that the PCAs are doing is not going to lessen down the road. It’s only going to increase.
But there are red flags. Day and employment services are of great concern as they only get paid when services are provided. Most providers are non-profits with very little to no cash reserves in case of emergencies. This could severely impact the ability of many of us to be able to go back to work if those providers aren’t even around.
I do see some trouble on the horizon for restrooms. Restrooms are small enough to begin with. We all know everybody loves those large accessible restrooms, but now with social distancing rules this could really become problematic. We will have to stay on top of this issue for sure as new rules will be made as this social distance model moves forward.
People with disabilities have been social distancing for years. We have always been relegated to the back of the line. When looking to go to a movie theater there’s usually a special section for those using mobility devices or a section for those needing an interpreter.
Our vehicles have special places to park in too. Some social distancing aspects might actually be a good thing for us. This could be called our new “accessible distancing.”
But there are concerns regarding whether equal treatment will be given to people with disabilities in the world of COVID-19. Do you give access to a respirator to someone who is totally healthy or someone with a disability that may be compromised?
When a vaccine is developed, who is first in line? The healthy or the vulnerable? And should we demand that people with disabilities. particularly those with Intellectual disabilities, have access to guardians if needing them at the hospital?
For students with disabilities distance learning has certainly been difficult since the pandemic. The concern is whether these students will continue to fall behind as a result of this new challenge.
We must continue to stay diligent on these important issues and demand that we be part of the equity conversation when COVID-19 discussions are taking place during this pandemic.
Joan Willshire is former executive director of the Minnesota Council on Disability and is a change agent for people with disabilities.