Remote digital access to work and life is a human right, don’t forget the disability community when Quarantine is lifted
By Professor Katie Ellis
Life has changed swiftly with one in five people worldwide going into coronavirus lockdown by March 2020. Efforts to ensure people can work, learn and access cultural life from home are key to this transition.
Flexible, accessible digital technologies have made the transition possible, as has people’s willingness to change — practically overnight — how things have always been done so they can benefit the rest of the community.
The result is a seismic shift in the way we, live, work, study and connect with each other. The novel coronavirus and COVID-19 have seen the closure of workplaces, schools and universities across the world as people take on a civic responsibility to stay home and work from home wherever possible.
Accessible and flexible digital technologies have made their #stayhome efforts possible.
While for many this is a major shift, it is old news for people with disabilities who coincidently also make up one fifth of the global population. People with disability, such as Angie Ebba, have offered advice on using technology as a coping strategy.
‘Connect with peers on social media, form group chats with your work buddies, and organize video calls for virtual drinks with your friends. Now that everyone — not just disabled people — need accessible ways to meet via technology, the landscape is changing fast. You can participate in dance classes via Facebook Live, or listen to the symphony streamed to you. Take advantage of these opportunities to stay connected.’
Accessibility and digital rights are highlighted multiple times in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability as essential to the realisation of human rights for people with disability. These rights should be made mainstream and available to everyone. Laura Dell, a friend from the Western Australian disability community, recently waded in on the debate with a comment on my Facebook page.
‘If it weren’t for the anxiety my life would be, in practical terms, in some ways better right now: so much music and art and culture online, signature-free deliveries from so many more places, rebated telehealth.’
My friend and Facebook contact is describing a shift in a key sociology of disability — the ways we have created a world that is inaccessible to people who have non-normative bodies and minds. COVID-19 has forced us to create a different world, one that might just be more inclusive for people with disability.
The experience of observing the large numbers of people being accommodated to work from home has been bittersweet for disability community members who have previously been denied the same accommodations.
In my 2016 book Disability Media Work I observed that some disabled journalists had been excluded in the media industry due to employer fears associated with costs, performance and the reaction of others. I interviewed disabled journalists who described the importance of digital media in creating accessible work environments. Freelancing was highlighted by these journalists as an opportunity for disabled journalists to tailor their work environments and use adaptive technologies.
As more workplaces moved online to facilitate social distancing, disabled journalists and editors are now reflecting on being forced into freelance work because newsrooms and employers had not been willing to allow them to work remotely.
Kean Brown, a writer with cerebral palsy, was refused remote work for years prior to the pandemic and probed the issue.
‘If remote work is suddenly possible now, why wasn’t it when I applied? Is it because non-disabled people suddenly need to work remotely so they can pay bills and have food to eat and clothes on their back and a roof over their heads? Because, disabled people have always needed those things, too.’
The rapid move to online work, study and cultural life shows that in many cases this type of accessibility for people with disability has always been possible, despite the unfortunate decisions made not to facilitate remote working practices.
Throughout my book I argued that increasing employment of journalists with disability would change the type of representations of disability available in the media. Following Stella Young, I argued that including more journalists with disability could shift the framing of disability beyond inspirational tropes towards nuanced analysis of the ways disability is socially constructed.
In the year prior to COVID-19 there was important disability-focused analysis of a number of issues, for example analysis of the negative effects of moves to ban single-use plastic items, research into the disproportionate impact of climate change on people with disability, and a push for accessible communications such as sign language to be used during natural disasters such as the Australian bushfires.
However, efforts to address these issues remained niche concerns. As Amy Meng, a journalist with an invisible disability, wrote for Buzzfeed, different rules apply when when people with and without disability require similar adaptations.
‘The perception is accommodations like online instruction, paying for sick leave, and single-use products have been deemed too difficult, or not worthwhile, to provide to the disability community — but organizations are willing and able to provide now that the health of able-bodied people is at stake.’
While my friend Laura is now experiencing a more inclusive digital world, she worries the coronavirus lockdown might turn out to be a terrible exercise in disability simulation where able-bodied people are encouraged to imagine how awful life is for people with disability and then go straight back to their normal lives.
Hopefully this is not the case, with new research by professional networking platform Linkedin suggesting remote work at least will become the new normal.
As the importance of accommodations related to remote work, study and cultural life become more recognised by the general population, and awareness of the importance of accessible communications and single-use items grows, we cannot forget the ongoing needs of the disability community once the quarantine ends.