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OPINION: Ableism and Accessibility in a Post-COVID World

Will the priorities of the pandemic remain?

Since the beginning of time, accessibility has been a major issue for disabled people. Disabled people have trouble finding or keeping employment. Disabled students struggle in the classroom. Wheelchair users are often unable to enter restaurants and other buildings due to the lack of ramps or automated door openings, and once inside they may be faced with high-top tables and other obstacles that abled people don’t even recognize. This is all due to a strong ableism that has pervades in our society since long before COVID-19.

Despite the unfathomable loss and economic destruction brought about by COVID-19, it has unquestionably shined a new light on issues around inaccessibility for disabled people. It remains to be seen whether the lessons learned during the pandemic will stick with us as a society, or whether the needs of disabled people will once again be swept under the rug. 

The idea to write about ableism came to me after seeing a tweet from a professor named Kathleen Kennedy, who tweeted out her own story on Aug. 14. Kennedy explained that earlier in the pandemic she was told by her university that if she filled out the proper ADA paperwork, she could work from home. When she did so, she was denied. She resigned, only for remote work to suddenly become required of everyone, disabled and abled, 10 days later. 

Kennedy said she was inspired to tell her own story after seeing similar reports elsewhere in the media. That same week it was reported that Cornell University would not consider any faculty requests to teach remotely instead of in person, not even from those seeking accommodations for chronic illnesses or disabilities.

During the pandemic, office positions that have long forced everyone to be present in the building suddenly found the resources to allow everyone to work from home during the pandemic. And yet, obstacles remain for deaf and hard-of-hearing folks like myself. Staff meetings and presentations are being held on Zoom and Google Meets, both of which offer the option of automatic captions, though even that is never 100% correct and lacks proper formatting and punctuation.

As a public figure, companies and press often reach out to me for interviews or to discuss business opportunities. Some of these businesses are small and can’t afford to hire a third-party captioning company, so they rely on automatic captions on Zoom. While most times the words themselves are right, the lack of proper punctuation makes it a difficult format to read as everything turns into a run-on sentence. 

There are also moments when the captions will suddenly stop working and the person talking to me has to start over. At that point, I ask them to instead write in the chat box or come equipped with an American Sign Language interpreter or proper captioner. 

Disabilities in the classroom and at work

Many businesses are struggling to find staff, but how are they treating disabled people who apply to work? Despite the fact that the American with Disabilities Act was signed into law in 1990, a plethora of businesses will reject the application of a disabled person because of their disability. It may be illegal, but businesses can simply work their way around the ADA by coming up with any excuse other than the disability. 

I am 30 years old and I have never had a mainstream job due to the fact that I am deaf. Add the chronic pain and fatigue that I have experienced for the last few years and it is even more reason for businesses to not hire me.

accessibility, virtual learning
Virtual learning has been helpful for students, though there are still accessibility obstacles for disabled people. (AdobeStock)

Disabled students unable to be present in the classroom due to doctor appointments or sick days have long been denied remote learning, risking truancy. And yet beginning in 2020, classes have been held virtually via Zoom. Pre-recorded lectures have become more accessible with closed captioning, making it easier to understand the content provided.

On Aug. 30, Gov. Roy Cooper signed Senate Bill 654 into law, giving individual school districts the ability to make day-to-day decisions regarding whether an individual school or classroom will move to remote learning. 

While this is hopeful news for chronically ill and immunocompromised students, it is bittersweet in that the law also states in-person instruction needs to continue as soon as the school has recovered from whatever staff shortage or quarantine caused the transition. 

This puts immunocompromised students at risk, especially considering that there is no longer a federal or even statewide mask mandate. A few counties in North Carolina, including Mecklenburg County, are requiring masks in school, but it is not enough.

I will be interested to see how Senate Bill 654 is implemented — whether school districts will use it to protect their most vulnerable students or simply work around it. 

Live music for disabled people

Concerts and other live entertainment bring about specific concerns regarding accessibility, and it’s not only due to the skyrocketing cost of tickets that we all deal with

Wheelchair and cane-accessible seating is not always available, and sometimes in a big crowd, getting to the accessible area can pose a challenge. But before you can even get to that point, finding accessible tickets can be a challenge in itself. 

Accessibility for live entertainment events has been an issue for wheelchair users and other diabled people since long before the pandemic. (AdobeStock)

For example, PNC Music Pavilion’s seating chart doesn’t clearly show that disabled seating is available, and only lets you know in small font far down on the homepage that the venue is accessible at all. The website says you have to purchase your tickets to find out about accessible seating, but when I tested out purchasing a ticket, I didn’t find any information about it. There should be a separate page with clear information about accessibility instead of it being on the disabled person’s shoulders to jump through hoops to figure it out.

While test-buying my ticket to a recent concert, lawn prices were around $18, while floor one seats where disabled people would need to sit ranged anywhere from $161 to almost $300. There is no information regarding discounted tickets for disabled attendees. This is a disability tax on top of already increased prices that should not exist.

Sign-language interpreters are not always available, either. Since COVID, however, virtual concerts have become more common, and hosts are becoming more inclined to bring interpreters in, or interpreters will volunteer their time to interpret acts themselves and upload them to the internet. 

Dining embraces accessibility … for a time

In the dining scene, the rise of curbside pickup and mobile app/online ordering during the pandemic has been a blessing for all of us. For myself as a deaf person, restaurants have made it easy for me to get exactly what I want and I don’t have to risk misunderstanding something, resulting in an incorrect order. 

I don’t have to come face-to-face with a Starbucks employee to make my order. I don’t have to figure out if my name is being called, as my order will be on a pickup shelf with my name on the ticket. As a chronically pained and fatigued person, I don’t have to spend time walking around a store to get what I need. I don’t have to be around a bunch of people. I can simply drive up, have my things put into my car for me, and go home.

accessibility, curbside takeout
An increase in accessibility included an embrace of curbside takeout at many restaurants. (AdobeStock)

As of late, I can already see that some establishments, like Starbucks for example, have started to get rid of their curbside pickup. Curbside pickup signs have been covered with white paper and the only options available at most locations on the mobile app are inside store pickup and drive-thru.

COVID continues to be a terrible thing, causing death and a strain on a society as a whole, but the fact of the matter is that it has forced the world to become a little more accessible to a marginalized group that has been fighting for these rights for years, well after the ADA was supposed to ensure them.

So what will happen now that things are starting to open up again? Will business take all the accessibility away if it doesn’t correlate with increased profits? If they do start to disappear, will disabled people at least be able to request accommodation, knowing that it is actually possible, or will we be denied and lied to again?

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