The Pandemic Created a Systemic Shift for Disability Rights and Accessible Space, Even If It Was Accidental
For the past 18 months or so during the pandemic, time stood somewhat still. Normal routines shifted or changed while still others fell off entirely. One that I missed deeply was my daily Starbucks run. Yes, they quickly adapted and offered drive up or curbside options, but it wasn’t until recently that I began slowly reemerging from isolation, back to Starbucks, and into the newly established normal.
I admit my anxiety about reemergence is high. I routinely find myself asking what a post-pandemic world will look like. Will the lessons surrounding the normalization of telework remain? What about telehealth and virtual appointments? Will disabled people who were shamed for using grocery delivery or reliance on food delivery apps finally feel free of judgement since they’ve now become commonplace? And what will going out into the world look and feel like as a wheelchair user with a service dog in public space? Everything feels so uncertain.
On my daily walk with my service dog, Sir Pico, I passed my local Starbucks and heard the familiar Siren song calling to me. “Go in. It’s been 18 months. Go in. You’re vaccinated. You’re masked. It’s okay. You deserve it. Maybe grab some avocado toast while you’re at it, you entitled millennial.” (My inner critic really needs to shut up.) It was part reassuring myself, and part feeling like my addiction grabbed me full-on by the shoulders and was shoving me toward the door.
I went in. From a disability perspective, what I saw was glorious. The Choir of Heavenly Angels sang in my head. OK, so it wasn’t that dramatic, but what I saw was open space and inclusive design that didn’t exist prior to the pandemic. Social distancing meant no narrow rope lines with customers standing shoulder-to-shoulder. The tables that once presented themselves like a navigational maze with potential death traps not dissimilar to the game Frogger, were gone. And customers weren’t packed wall-to-wall in every corner waiting for their drinks to be made while I, at my lowered height uttered “Excuse me, sorry about that.” I no longer had to navigate between random display items—constant reminders that the world is seldom built with disabled people in mind.
Instead, there was openness. I rolled in, and for the first time entered a public space that I felt gave me room to breathe. I had the ability to unapologetically be myself, to exist, and not feel like I took up too much space or was somehow unwelcome just by virtue of being me. I grabbed my drink which I had preordered on the app, thanked the barista, turned around, wheeled outside, and sat at the table contently sipping my Mocha Frappuccino, having felt seen for the first time in a long while as a disabled person.
If this seems like a simple moment to you, or perhaps like I’m getting too excited about an everyday event, that’s because I am. Not because I went outside and lived my life or because I’m vaccinated and the world is slowly opening. It’s because the pandemic has forced us all—especially businesses—to redefine what “normal” truly looks like. Prior to the pandemic, the disability community was routinely told that what we needed was “special,” or costs too much, or couldn’t be done because it created an organizational burden. But the pandemic proved all those obstacles were accepted simply because non-disabled people hadn’t yet felt the imperative to act beyond their own self-interest. For far too long the disability community felt excluded in spaces simply because they weren’t built for us. COVID thrusted upon the non-disabled a new lens through which to see the world, getting their attention in a way our screaming, yelling, and pleading could not; because they finally, for once, saw themselves in us.
As a disabled man, I could not be more elated by the possibility that open space is the new normal. As short as our collective memories may be, I’m hopeful that at least this one lesson about accessible spaces sticks. The disabled community will continue to fight for more access and more inclusivity, but for right now, in this moment, I’m going to take the win for this unintended result of COVID. I wish it hadn’t taken a pandemic to get here, but I’m ready to enjoy the wide open space.
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