The Coronavirus Silver Lining: Improving Global Accessibility

Published September 28, 2020

The coronavirus has generated an all hands on deck global interest in finding ways that all of us can continue to meet our work and social obligations while at the same time minimizing the risks of infection. People with disabilities, who have been fighting for years to make the world more accessible, perhaps have a right to wonder why many changes that they have requested with little success in the past are suddenly being made, seemingly overnight.

People with disabilities make up approximately 15% of the global population. That’s 1.3 billion people who have the potential for improved lives through greater accessibility. The coronavirus pandemic is having a significant impact on this issue for a couple of reasons. People everywhere are today experiencing some sense of what it feels like to have one’s ability to participate in life on a daily basis dramatically curtailed by an arbitrary barrier. At the same time, we are all learning how efficiently, when the incentives exist, that workplaces and public spaces can be modified to truly expand accessibility and opportunities on a large scale.

More importantly, people are learning that improving accessibility for people with disabilities today will often also enhance accessibility for everyone. Many solutions that have been implemented as a result of the pandemic are the same solutions, like remote working itself, which people with disabilities have been advocating for years. In other words, the interests of people both with and without disabilities have, for at least a brief moment in our history, more-closely aligned in some ways. This shared interest, leveraged properly, creates opportunities for everyone.

If we review the global response to the coronavirus from its onset at the beginning of this year, it is clear that had there been greater effort in the past to create more accessible and physically inclusive spaces in all areas of our lives, we would have been in a better position to respond to the coronavirus threat and reduce lockdown periods.

Meeting the accessibility needs of people with disabilities has consistently come with substantial challenges. Business and government leaders and their architects and designers have been inundated for years with creative solutions to everyday accessibility barriers that were often rejected as impractical or too costly. Ironically, prior implementation of some of these ideas may have significantly reduced lockdown periods. In addition, we are witnessing many instances where change once deemed impossible has suddenly become very doable.

For example, the layout and design of our commercial and government buildings are now undergoing drastic review and modification to address social distancing and contact concerns. Many of these changes reflect the new convergence of goals. Making us safer will in many instances also make life more accessible for people with disabilities. For example:

  • Automatically opening doors throughout buildings has long been touted as a truly significant accessibility improvement. At the same time, these changes can go a long way to reducing coronavirus infection risks by reducing instances where people touch the same points. With reduction of this risk comes the chance that people can re-enter the world and our economy sooner.
  • The same dual benefit is achieved as stores widen the aisles between shelves. Again, many people with disabilities have long viewed this improvement, as well as expanding all retail spaces, as critical in broadening access. Of course, the same change creates the opportunity for people to comply with social distancing rules without the need for one-way aisles and other shopping traffic restrictions.
  • Similar to indoor changes, oft proposed changes to our outdoor environment can provide greater accessibility for people with disabilities as well as reduce the coronavirus risk. Wider sidewalks, bike paths, and jogging trails can provide such mutual benefit.

And of course, remote work itself brings an unlimited potential for providing access to people who otherwise had greater difficulty getting to and from work or meeting the demands of office work and space. Prior to the pandemic, this general accessibility improvement would be viewed as simply an addition to the then existing primary incentives for expanding remote work — "excitement about nomadic lifestyles and leaner startups”. Those incentives for change have now been washed away and subsumed by the very real incentive impacting everyone — remaining safe from infection.

We are in the midst of a unique challenge with the Coronavirus in that everyone in the world has been impacted. While people with disabilities continually struggle with accessibility issues, the fact that many solutions to one of these challenges today also turns out to be a solution to the other is truly a silver lining.

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