By Andrew Pulrang
How will our world change after the pandemic?
Will go completely back to normal and try to forget all of this ever happened, the way so many Americans did after the 1918 Influenza pandemic? Will we just change a few habits, policies, and plans to confront future outbreaks? Or, will we go a bit further and make bigger reforms we once thought impossible, but now seem both feasible and wise? We should probably be wary of attempts to use the COVID-19 pandemic to “win” long standing political arguments. On the other hand, we would be foolish to ignore how the pandemic might legitimately reshape and re-prioritize old policy and ideological debates. And we shouldn’t be afraid to do some key things quite differently from now on.
Maybe nations and governments around the world will find the wisdom, techniques, and urgency to cooperate on genuinely global threats, like pandemics and climate change.
Health care debates, so centered in the United States on cost and the public vs. private divide, may now take capacity and nationwide organization into account as well.
Then there is the potential impact on the oldest political argument of all — finding the right balance between public health and safety, and individual liberty.
And in the disability sphere especially, our experience with the pandemic, however it turns out in the end, may suggest new ways of looking at some old issues.
1. A wider acceptance of doing business online, “from home.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought unprecedented acceptance of living life online. Millions of “essential” workers are unaffected and unprotected by this option, and most of the rest of us are anxious to get back to living life “in person.” But this embrace of online life has struck a chord with many disabled people, who have long fought for the option to work, learn, and do business “from home.”
Disabled people have decidedly mixed emotions about this. On the one hand, we are glad to see employers, schools and universities, and government offices adopt business and communication practices that offer disabled people more flexible, accessible options. We hope against past experience that once proven, these new options will remain active after the crisis is over.
On the other hand, it’s hard not to feel taken aback at how quickly and enthusiastically the “work from home” lifestyle has been accepted, almost as a fun novelty. For decades, disabled people have lost major opportunities because of what now turns out to have been indifference, or simple human reluctance to try doing things differently.
It’s not about trivial convenience. Disabled people lose jobs because they aren’t allowed the option to work from home, or even apply. Disabled students are forced to drop out of college because professors and administrators won’t be flexible about on-site attendance when disabilities flare up. Disabled people are punished and penalized for missing all kinds of appointments and hearings due to ill health, unreliable transportation, and above it all government and nonprofit agencies that refuse to modernize and offer even the most simple online tools. Even during the pandemic, it’s far from certain whether voting access will be improved by allowing universal access to mail-in ballots, or whether insistence on in-person voting will disenfranchise millions, including disabled and medically vulnerable citizens.
To be clear … not all disabled people want to work from home. Some of us have jobs that can’t be transferred home. Many disabled people lack adequate devices and internet connections. And many of us prefer to work and learn outside of our homes, side by side with our friends and coworkers, and face to face with customers.
Online and work from home options have sometimes been sold to disabled people as an alternative to making workplaces more accessible and less discriminatory. This is not what we are looking for. Working from home should never be treated as a substitute for community accessibility, accessible transportation, and community integration.
But for some disabled people, working from home is a great option … just as is for many non-disabled people for other reasons. In particular, the ability to work from home occasionally, as our disabilities fluctuate, can literally save our jobs, keep us on track to graduate, and stay in compliance with important legal and financial obligations. And the COVID-19 pandemic has proven that while we can’t move an entire economy online, being open to working from home can be an important tool for long-term survival and stability in unpredictable circumstances. Disabled people can and should benefit from this insight most of all.
2. A new urgency to the trend away from congregate care.
As the COVID-19 pandemic moves into its next phase, some of the attention is shifting from shortages of ventilators and other equipment to the horrific death tolls and apparent neglect in densely populated nursing homes for the elderly and disabled, group homes and institutions for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, and mental institutions. When so much of the battle against the virus depends on isolation, these kinds of congregate care facilities seem uniquely and inherently unsafe.
Originally posted on Forbes