This week, lockdown is easing. Family BBQs, retail therapy and that urgently needed haircut are on the horizon, and even those who have been shielding are allowed out of the house again, but as a disabled person it’s a long time until I’ll be truly independent again.
I am visually impaired, I use a long white cane to navigate the world, and I can’t see two metres in front of me. My vision is complicated, but essentially it constantly varies from a fuzzy bubble to nothing more than light and shadows. Therefore, it is impossible for me to practice social distancing.
Normally I travel into Central London for work every day and I go out with my friends to the pub or for dinner in the evening. I’m used to people walking into me because they are staring at their phone or just not paying attention. It’s one of the difficult realities of being blind in London. However, I had perhaps naively hoped these kind of behaviours would stop when the news was telling us keep our distance from others.
There seems to be an assumption that disabled people just stay at home anyway, that we don’t have lives, children, jobs, friends, a favourite pub or a community that we want to be part of.
Early on in lockdown I attempted a solo trip to the supermarket. A combination of a queue I couldn’t work out, a changed layout with physical barriers in the aisles, the rearranged produce and confusing floor markers I couldn’t read, left me exhausted and anxious. That plus the unhelpful attitude of staff, the hostile reception from fellow shoppers, and the frequent bumps from unaware pedestrians on my walk home, meant I resolved that I couldn’t safely go out alone again.
Now going out of the house makes me extremely anxious, I’m even avoiding a daily walk because of the number of times my partner has had to pull me out of the way of people who won’t observe social distancing. This means I’m totally reliant on my sighted partner every time I leave the house, I’ve lost my independence, my confidence is shattered, and it feels like my life will never be the same again.
Of course, social distancing is absolutely a necessary measure during this pandemic, but there are so many worrying unknowns for me about the future. How will I use public transport when I often rely on staff support? Will pavements and road crossings have changed on familiar routes? Will the drop curb or tactile paving which I rely on be blocked by a temporary pavement extension? How will I go shopping when I can’t see how busy a shop is or follow one way signs? How will I go back to work? How will I meet up with my friends if my partner can’t take me?
For my friends who are shielding, they are wary of the new government advice that they are safe to leave their homes. With the R number so close to 1 in many parts of the country and medical advice contradicting the announcements, most of my friends have said they plan to continue shielding until at least August.
My biggest worry is that this new much-used label of “vulnerable” is obscuring the real societal barriers that will make exiting lockdown impossible for disabled people. Yes, the virus is a risk but so often inaccessible infrastructure and negative public attitudes create the real challenges to disabled people being able to participate in society. For example, I’ve heard a frightening increase in accounts of harassment, abuse or hate crimes from disabled friends. A guide dog owner was screamed at in a shop for being too close and a wheelchair using was asked intrusive questions about whether they should be allowed out of the house.
The most frustrating thing is that unlike Covid-19, many of these access barriers have solutions.
There seems to be an assumption that disabled people just stay at home anyway, that we don’t have lives, children, jobs, friends, a favourite pub or a community that we want to be part of. Reframing disabled people as “vulnerable” feels like we’re being sent back to the last century, as a childlike group in need of protection and dependent on others rather than being autonomous adults.
The most frustrating thing is that unlike Covid-19, many of these access barriers have solutions. Putting tactile bumps in the floor markers in supermarket queues would help me find them, if staff are given PPE they can support me on public transport. The government needs to remind everyone that disabled people have an equal right to participate in society and it just takes a few small adjustments to make it safer for us all. Unsurprisingly, disabled people are being left out of these conversations and policy decisions, and yet we will feel the real impact.
So I ask that you challenge these barriers when you encounter them, invite disabled people into the conversation in your workplace or community and find a solution together. Otherwise, the new normal risks being a society without disabled people.
Dr Amy Kavanagh is currently the Landlady of The Staying Inn, an online pub for isolated disabled & non disabled people to connect during COVID-19.