What the COVID-19 pandemic can show us about disability | Inside UNSW

October 19, 2020
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In her own words, Professor Jackie Leach Scully, Director of UNSW’s Disability Innovation Institute, argues the pandemic is forcing a rethink of how we live and how we can use it to enhance inclusion so everyone has the ability to flourish.

At times coronavirus feels like the (unwanted) gift that keeps on giving. The pandemic has brought an apparently endless stream of new constraints and difficulties to billions of people around the world. But alongside the many disadvantages come important new insights into aspects of life that, in our old life, many people could ignore.

One of these is recognising the fact that most of us move frictionlessly through the everyday isn’t just how the world is: it’s the result of a social and material environment that has been carefully engineered over centuries to suit. The size of our furniture, the clothing we can buy, the places where we gather, even the pattern of our working hours, are there because of past decisions, explicit and implicit, that work for us.

Under lockdown the operations of normal life became inaccessible, as non-essential workplaces closed and children stopped going to school. “Popping out to the shops” has become a novel and complicated decision-making algorithm about masks, distancing, and the balance of risk versus need.

Some things that were previously unavailable have now become magically possible. We can work from home; have concerts and exercise classes streamed into our sitting rooms; or chat with distant friends and colleagues via new technological platforms.

For people with disability, navigating the shifting and unpredictable currents of accessibility has always been a part of everyday life.  Disability theory of the last half century has moved away from the view of disability as a primarily medical phenomenon, to seeing it as a complex social interaction; the result of a ‘mismatch’ between a body and the social and material world in which the embodied person lives.

Contemporary models of disability may focus on the barriers to disabled people entering paid work, on the psychoemotional effects of exclusion, or on the consequences of inaccessible education. What they have in common is that much of the disabling mismatch between body and world could be removed, if people chose to do so.

Everyday practices and assumptions could combine to ensure that mobility, sensory, or cognitive impairments are rendered anomalous. These practices are the result of past political, social and economic decisions. These could be changed and the world, and the lives of people with disability, could change.

Arguments in favour of wholescale rearrangements of societies have generally been dismissed as unrealistic. But now that coexistence with a pandemic virus demands changes on that scale, they have become more possible.

For example, many people with disability have known that their access to employment would be easier (or indeed possible) if they could work from home, but relatively few workplaces in the past have shown the necessary imagination and flexibility for this.

With the pandemic, the anomaly of remote working has suddenly become the norm, and employers are willing to invest heavily in training and equipping their employees to fit the new conditions.

Educators and academics have had to adopt practices that make remote delivery accessible to people in a range of domestic situations and technical capabilities.

That process has not been easy, but it has resulted in online learning that is potentially more accessible to people with disability as well.

After the abrupt and radical reshaping of a world we took for granted, an equally radical reorganisation of everyday practices has enabled life to go on within new parameters.

It is a vivid, real-time demonstration of the way that not just disabled people’s, but everyone’s access to the social world is structurally and institutionally organised.

The devastating evidence being presented to the Disability Royal Commission has shown how many people with disability, especially those reliant on service providers or living in group homes, have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19.

This is also an opportunity to recognise an underlying commonality in the way that everyone’s ability to flourish is dependent on how our bodies and practices dovetail – or not – with social structures and organisation.

COVID-19 is forcing a rethink of our ways of being. This reimagining could enhance the inclusion of people whose bodies were always routinely excluded from the norms of the old world.

Professor Jackie Leach Scully is an internationally recognised bioethicist specialising in disability and feminist bioethics. Find out more about the work of the Disability Innovation Institute.

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