By Derek Newman-Stille
For many of us who are disabled, we have been told that accommodations for our disabilities would not be possible or feasible. We have been told that we couldn’t use technologies like Zoom, Skype, or Messenger to do our work remotely. We have been told that we couldn’t access conferences by remote technology. We have been told that we couldn’t attend workshops and creative community opportunities because the locations were not accessible and they would not be able to provide remote access.
So, imagine how we, as disabled people, feel now that all of these accommodations have been made in light of COVID-19. What is the difference between the impossibility of access before and the new “we want to make it visible that our company/workshop/conference/university/government job is accessible”? It’s a matter of which populations were affected. When it was only disabled people who were requesting access, these requests were denied. Now that the abled population is in need of accessibility too, not only are they immediately given access through remote technologies, businesses, universities, and governments are investing money into those technologies, providing workshops on how to use those technologies, and actively ADVERTISING that they are using these technologies to seem more cutting edge than other companies. Why is it that things that were “not possible” when disabled people asked for them are now not only abundantly possible, but also have money being thrown at them to make sure that they are the most accessible? The answer is ableism. When it is just disabled people, our needs are treated as an inconvenience. When abled people also need those points of access, they suddenly become a priority.
From personal experience, I have encountered this again and again with past jobs, with academic conferences (even some that highlight disability), and with writing conventions and workshops. I have been told that the accommodations I have requested would not be possible. I have been told that in-person presentations are essential to conferences… and those same conferences have now moved to an entirely online format. I have been told that no accommodations could be made at writing workshops and retreats (which are physically inaccessible)…. and those workshops and retreats are now online.
When I was being denied accommodations that were necessary for me to be able to participate, I knew that this was largely due to ableism. Early on, I tried to share technologies that would allow myself and other disabled people to participate and was told that these technologies would “complicate things”. I was aware that no one wanted to put the effort into making a space actually accessible. I was aware that they didn’t think it would be a loss to have disabled people unable to attend.
However, it still hurts to know that as soon as abled people are in need of accommodation — as soon as access is seen as not ‘just a disabled person issue’ — immediately companies, conferences, conventions, etc. invest resources into learning how to accommodate people and provide finances to achieve that accommodation. Moreover, the frustrating thing is that many of these accommodations had never actually involved cost on the part of these organizations. They were cost neutral and could be provided by free services like Skype.
This lack of accommodation is certainly not something new or unique, it is part of systemic ableism and part of a devaluing of disabled knowledge, experience, and personhood. Abled society tends to immediately think of disability and accommodation as an “inconvenience”. It is built into everyday rhetoric. We, as disabled people, have to constantly negotiate being viewed as inconvenient, frustrating, as impediments, and have our concerns viewed as frivolous.
Many of us are now asking what happens next. As many abled people are looking for a return to normal, many of us are seeing an opportunity for change, an opportunity for abled people to learn about the needs for accommodation and learn that workplaces should be flexible to provide for multiple needs and multiple forms of access.
Alice Wong talks about the fact that “the pandemic has brought about changes to accessibility for things that disabled people have been advocating for forever” in her Esquire article ‘Normal’ Was Actually Not Great for a Lot of People . She highlights writing opportunities that have been unavailable to her because she was told “you can’t do that. It’s too hard” and “there are too many issues” for her to access these spaces by Skype. Wong tells readers “My hope for coming out of this pandemic is that we don’t return to the status quo. Many people don’t realize that ‘normal’ was actually not great for a lot of people.”
Dorothy Palmer points out that as COVID-19 restrictions are being removed, so are many of our accessibility features and that disabled people are getting attacked for asking for a continuance of access when she states “Disabled writers in the US and CanLit are getting attacked for simply wanting to keep the same accessibility abled people had during the pandemic” in a tweet on June 12.
So how do we maintain access after COVID-19? How do we ensure that people can gain access to events and work places and accommodations in general when it goes back to being “just a disabled problem”? What can we do to make sure that things DON’T return to normal?
…Because normal was already exclusionary.
…Normal has ALWAYS been exclusionary.