Disability and COVID — is the glass half empty or half full?

Glass containing ice on a bar half full of a dark alcoholic substance
Because someone’s “opportunity” in one country is another person’s “I can’t believe we are still effing doing it this way” somewhere else

What do these articles have in common?

WSJ — Coronavirus Strains Safety Net for People With Disabilities

The Guardian — COVID Lockdown Opening Up World for People with Disabilities

World Economic Forum — COVID-19’s isolated world is the norm for people with disabilities

They are all about the same topic but are being told from three very different societal perspectives.

  • The first article (US-based) is focusing on the negatives of being an American with a disability in these challenging times. glass half empty.
  • The second article (UK-based) is about the opportunities of having a disability in the UK during these times. Glass half full.
  • The third article (global) is about how lockdown hasn’t altered the lives of a large group of people with disabilities, who were frequently socially isolated anyways. Being locked down has been “their glass” (i.e., lived experience) all along. Let’s call this one “welcome to OUR glass.”

How you look at the facts behind the story frequently depends on what experiences you are bringing on these topics.

  • In the US, the focus on getting your health care through employment makes people with chronic medical conditions feel precarious about their future health care, at best. These are frankly challenges NOT faced by anyone anywhere else in the developed world. There are no social safety nets for people with disabilities in the US. Very few people in the US with disabilities are calling COVID-19 an unequivocal “opportunity.”
  • The sub-headline in the second article is, “Many people able to take part in work, culture, or socialising (sic) from their own home for first time” — Inspiration Porn alert!

“Disabled person does X for the first time” is not the real story.

The first REAL story is: Why the eff people with disabilities in the UK didn’t FEEL like they could do this before COVID.

The second REAL story is: The ableism behind the rejected accommodation requests from people with disabilities.

Especially when the new story is about how work from home is doable when it’s a whole workforce of non-disabled people making the request, but not when a single person with a disability requests it.

For the third article (“welcome to our Glass”) this article is a simple reminder that:

  1. People without disabilities rarely wholly understand the lives of people with disabilities. That only changes when the people without disabilities ask, and the people with disabilities authentically answer. I experienced this first hand when the head of HR at my employer asked me (a wheelchair user) to go on a trip to India with her because she wanted to know my true experience in our new complex. “The good, the bad, and the ugly,” she said. I asked her (partly in jest) — do you want to be on hold with me for 4 hours making wheelchair arrangements for the flights, transportation, and hotels also? The look that went across her face told me in a split-second that she had no concept that this even was “a thing.” But she knows now because she asked and I authentically answered.
  2. COVID is effectively a massive disability simulation exercise, where everyone, disabled or not, is trying to figure out what accommodations and modifications they need in their lives to make work from home productive without letting things like homeschooling and eldercare drop through the cracks.

Motivation is a tricky thing. Some people need to be positive and upbeat all the time and only look at the glass being half full. For others, this “positive and upbeat all the time” behavior can border on toxic positivity. Then there is a second group of individuals who need to look at the situation in front of them as the glass being half empty, with the empty part being a challenge to be overcome. Fill that glass! Sometimes these positions hide underlying mental health challenges. I definitely fall into the second category.

I suspect that if a demographic analysis was performed on who falls into what group:

  • the half glass empty group would be primarily represented by people with disabilities, where the disability is long-standing and impacts day-to-day socialization and business activities. We are a naturally pessimistic group. We’ve been waiting a long time for the equal life that we have been promised. We’ve been repeatedly disappointed by all sectors — medical, business, government, and sometimes family/friends. Also, people with disabilities are natural problem solvers. We spend our entire lives trying to navigate around societal barriers that don’t take our disabilities into account. Many of us subconsciously frame everything as just another problem to be overcome.
  • The half glass full group seems to be primarily represented by two categories a) those with a vested interest in optimism (people trying to sell their solutions, or craft their message that “everything is going to be OK” because it fits their brand identity and b) those from D&I/HR types of roles or charities that don’t have or understand disabilities and are trying to “help” people with disabilities without adequate input from them.

The most important things not to be forgotten:

  1. People without disabilities will be able to return to what passes for their new normal after COVID is over. Let’s make sure people with disabilities get to do the same.
  2. In the whole inclusion/belonging narrative:
  • “Inclusion” is when everyone acknowledges that others may view their glasses differently than you view yours.
  • “Belonging” is when no one has a glass or is worrying about glasses.

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