Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 15 July 2020

For disabled people, it doesn't feel like we're 'all in this together'

Having to stay at home during the lockdown, people might have realised for the first time the struggles of anyone in a wheelchair

Maria Angelica Bernal, a wheelchair tennis player, after a training session at her home during the lockdown on June 19 in Bogota, Colombia. Guillermo Legaria / Getty
Maria Angelica Bernal, a wheelchair tennis player, after a training session at her home during the lockdown on June 19 in Bogota, Colombia. Guillermo Legaria / Getty

It has been over 100 days since I last left the house, a decision I took voluntarily two weeks before the British government advised those at the top of the high risk group to stay home for 12 weeks.

When we first heard of the mysterious and frightening Covid-19 virus we were told that it does not discriminate. It could hit anyone in any part of the world. That soon proved to be a myth as far as disabled people were concerned.

Here in the UK, the overall message from both the government and the media was a reassuring nod, but only to the young and the healthy. The message early on seemed to be: don’t panic, it is more likely to affect the elderly, the disabled and people with underlying health issues. This automatically set off alarm bells in my head that I was about to be excluded from the rest of the population.

When you have lived with a muscle-wasting condition and a respiratory problem since birth, you are used to the fear of infections. It is always complicated and it is always an ordeal. But this time was different. This fear made me numb, as it was a new feeling to realise that disability further singles you out. It makes you more likely to catch the virus.

These thoughts caused me many sleepless nights. Then came the lockdown. Weirdly enough, it was only then that I started sleeping better. For the first time in my life I felt the world was equal. Everyone was stuck at home – something that is familiar to disabled people. Most of us have experienced long spells of having to remain indoors. I felt people might realise finally what it feels like to be unable to go out and enjoy life.

As it turns out, when the non-disabled are prevented from going out, the world, it seems, does everything to keep them entertained. All of a sudden everything that was denied to people who could not go out because of the lockdown, became available online and free: theatre performances, art exhibitions, virtual concerts, virtual travel, free films and books, new online courses, the list goes on.

It is not just the hospitality field or the arts and culture industry that rushed to keep the general public entertained but work places all of a sudden made it easy to work from home. Yet for nearly four years I was going from one job interview to another and as I would reach the final stage and ask to split my work between home and the office for health reasons, I would be told it is not possible. Now, working from home is the trend.

Like me, people are excited by the opportunities that have miraculously become available, but there is also disappointment about why it took so long

These realities and contradictions have caused me mixed feelings. I am thrilled that options I had been deprived of for years are now just a ‘click’ away, yet I also feel angry and cheated. I cannot recall the number of times I have not been able to go see a play because it was being staged in a heritage building with no wheelchair access, or missing out on a musical or a concert because the theatre had space for only two wheelchairs. I have often wished there was another way for me to watch these shows but online performances did not exist prior to the pandemic.

Sophie Carrigill, a wheelchair basketball player trains at home in Sheffield, June 9, UK. Matthew Lewis / Getty
Sophie Carrigill, a wheelchair basketball player trains at home in Sheffield on June 9, UK. Matthew Lewis / Getty

I am not alone in this feeling this way. Lojen Mohammed, a teacher in Iraq who has a physical disability, has also been at home for more than three months. But Lojen does not see it as a big issue because, as she says, if you are disabled and living in Iraq, going out is a luxury.

The general lack of accessibility means being at home is in any case the norm. Lojen enrolled for online cultural events and gained certification in courses that were newly being offered. Her one worry was access to medical care because if you are disabled you are less likely to go to a hospital and get tested for the virus. Iraq does not offer the option of home testing.

Speaking to other disabled people gave me further insight. Like me, people are excited by the many opportunities that have miraculously become available, but there is also disappointment about why for so long we have been deprived of options that are now readily offered.

Mohammed Idan Jabbar, the founder of Iraq’s Short Stature Association, and a person of short stature himself, lives in Belgium. He talked to me about his anxiety that in these past few months have affected his sleep patterns.

Although he utilised this period to learn new languages, cook, study and pursue courses online, he fears the state of the world’s economy will affect everything that disabled people have spent decades to gain. For example, with so many shops, restaurants and theatres struggling financially, they might not consider making their places accessible to disabled people as it will cost money that they don’t have, which means the disabled consumer may no longer be a factor, let alone a priority.

But these realities apart, I truly hope that the pandemic has generated questions that might make society a more equal place. The pandemic might just have been the first time that people understood the struggles of all disabled people – the inability to go out is just one among many.

Raya Al Jadir is a freelance journalist and co-founder of the first Arabic lifestyle e-magazine of its kind, Disability Horizons

Updated: June 25, 2020 02:34 PM

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