Disability, Harrogate

The Covid Pandemic was the perfect opportunity to increase awareness & understanding of the needs of disabled people – how did it go wrong and what can we learn from it to put things right?

When the Prime Minister first announced a national lockdown back in March, millions of people had to suddenly get used to working from home, or be placed on furlough and unable to work due to businesses reliant on face to face contact & socialisation forced to shut down. Suddenly people weren’t allowed to meet with others outside their household and only go outside for essential matters (e.g. groceries, medical requirements) and for one hours worth of exercise per day.

For many people with disabilities or chronic illnesses, this was not a new occurrence. Having certain medical conditions such as ME/Fibromyalgia or Autoimmune disease often means that you have to limit social contact with people due to how it affects your energy levels or the risk factor in catching/spreading illnesses if your immune system is low.

Many disabled people often struggle to find employment opportunities (both paid and voluntary) due to the lack of physical access or unwillingness of employees to make reasonable adjustments. In the past, many disabled people were denied the opportunity to work flexibly or work from home as employers declared it to be ‘economically unviable’. Now, with lockdown firmly established, businesses and organisations had no option – online learning, remote working and flexible hours were being implemented and encouraged everywhere. Finally(!) – there may be more opportunities for disabled people and those who have previously had no knowledge of what it was like being more socially isolated due to being disabled, may get a taste and understand just how hard and frustrating it can be not being able to do things you ‘should’ be able to do because of a lack of support and protection against something which could harm you.

Unfortunately, this optimism and hope that society may just start to make more things accessible for disabled people as a result of lessons learnt in lockdown was short-lived. As the first lockdown was lifted, people were encouraged to go back to work in offices and buildings that had been set up for social distancing. When the furlough scheme ended, disabled employees were often the first to be made redundant as a result of companies having to make cuts. Non essential shops and businesses soon started to open again, but due to social distancing measures having to be implemented, many businesses blocked off disabled parking bays at the front of stores and shops became more difficult to navigate due to one way systems and blocked off areas. The ‘purple pound’ (the spending power of disabled households) is estimated to be worth around £249 billion a year to the UK economy – why are our needs and access requirements being forgotten about?

Part of me wonders if many people assume that the vast majority of disabled people (particularly those with visibly physical conditions) are in the “extremely vulnerable to Covid 19′ category and will therefore still be shielding when the rest of the country comes out of lockdown. I have personally seen people in the street obviously trying to keep their distance from me (some even stopping to stand and turn away from me whilst I go past them) in comparison to when they walk past those with no visible disability. I respect their willingness and eagerness to stick to social distancing guidelines, but just because I use a wheelchair doesn’t mean I am more at risk of getting Covid than those a similar age or older than me. I haven’t received a shielding notice from my GP and although I do have Cerebral Palsy, it doesn’t (as far as I’m aware) affect my respiratory or immune system.

My theory of people assuming that those who are “extremely vulnerable” will still be shielding and therefore won’t be leaving the house until a vaccine can be found, is more apparent when you consider the people who have been demonstrating against the lockdown rules and fight for the right of ‘herd immunity’ – claiming that those who get Covid will be elderly or have “pre existing conditions” and so they should be the ones who should be shielded and let the rest of the country “get back to normal”. Do they not understand that many people with these “pre existing conditions” (such as Asthma, Colitis and MS) are still of working age, are able to contribute to society, have friends and family who love them and still have a long life ahead of them?! The same can be easily said for elderly people. The retirement (State Pension) age in the UK is currently set at 66 and is set to rise further in the next few years. Those over 65 years old will be among the first to receive the new Covid vaccines and have been advised to take extra care when it comes to social distancing as elderly people are generally seen to be more at risk of contracting Covid 19. Yet we still hear of people working (both paid and voluntary) into their 70s and beyond. Just because you are coming towards the end of your life, it doesn’t mean it can’t be enriching, fulfilling and that you can’t contribute to the future of our society anymore. Just look at Captain Tom Moore!

Something I have loved about the changes made during lockdown is the willingness of retail and hospitality businesses to become more accessible by offering delivery services and takeaways. For years there have been many local restaurants, cafes and independent eateries that I have dreamed of tasting but have been unable to due to lack of physical access into their stores. When the first lockdown shut all the non essential businesses and prohibited close social contact, many of these places such as Baltzersens, Elite Meat & Fodder took it upon themselves to offer delivery slots or sign up to a delivery service like Deliveroo or UberEats. I was able to purchase foods I may have previously been unaware of and give my money to local independent businesses that I couldn’t usually support due to lack of access. This has been a lifesaver to many during the pandemic and would clearly benefit those who struggle to get out independently long after all this is over! I hope that all the businesses and organisations involved have seen the impact offering deliveries can make to the wider community and will continue these great services in the future.

One of the biggest lessons of the Covid 19 pandemic should be that adaptation for inclusion, even in the most stressful & strange times, is always possible and funding can be adequately sourced if everybody puts their mind to it. Disabled people, who have often had to adapt quickly to situations beyond their control, are some of the best people to advise on how to cope when things get tough – not in a patronising “you’re so inspiring, I could never do that” way, but giving real solutions for situations they have plenty of experience in for those who had never had to go through such uncertain changes before. We have so much to offer, but we want to be acknowledged for it in the same way any other ‘expert’ is rewarded for their time and skills! Now that Covid has shown that working from home and flexible working is possible and maybe even preferable(!), use it as an opportunity to employ more people who otherwise may have struggled to cope in the standard 9 to 5 office environment. The more diversity you have, the more ideas you will bring to the table and change can be made for the better!

2020 has been such a tough, eventful year for all of us, but there is so much we can learn from it that can help make the world and our own lives a better place to be. Lets hope that those in power can learn from it too and that things go ‘onwards and upwards’ towards a happier normality from here!

2 thoughts on “The Covid Pandemic was the perfect opportunity to increase awareness & understanding of the needs of disabled people – how did it go wrong and what can we learn from it to put things right?”

  1. Thank you, this is a beautifully written and clear explanation of so many aspects of disabled life before, during and, hopefully after Covid. With three disabled family members I always think I’m aware of the way society sets itself against disabled people but you have really expanded my views with this. Your hope that there would be improvements after the learning curve that was lockdown 1 will hopefully be realised sooner now but as a bit of a cynic, I have my doubts just as yet. Like you I really hope those business’ that suddenly took to delivering continue to do so; supporting the locals is always good. Thanks again for a thoroughly fascinating and enjoyable read. Take care, stay safe.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I love this article. Thank you for writing it Charlie. I am one of those you mention who “struggled to cope in the standard 9 to 5 office environment” due to an invisible disability.
    I am lucky enough to work full-time and I have lots of support at home and at work. Even with this positive environment, pre-lockdown I was always tired all the time with less energy and resources to spend on my personal life. Over the last year there has been a lot of uncertainty to deal with because of furlough but it has resulted in more working from home and the quality of the work I deliver has actually increased.
    PS. I listened to your podcast you did with Pooky Knightsmith and found your blog from there.


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