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While the coronavirus pandemic has led to unprecedented restrictions for billions of people, for many with disabilities, the lockdown has paradoxically opened up the world. As society embraces “virtual” living, disabled people – who for years have missed out due to poor access – are suddenly finding themselves able to take part in work, culture, or socialising from their own home.
Nicola Welsh, 43, has always loved going to museums but a painful nerve condition means she’s been housebound for 17 years. As cultural institutions including the National Theatre and the Royal Opera House go online, she’s been able to tour the world visiting museums.
“I ‘went’ to the Watts Gallery [in Surrey] and then the Louvre. The Rijks [museum in Amsterdam] had a walkthrough on their Instagram account,” she said. The experience has been profoundly moving. “Having the opportunity to visit virtually has given me back something that I’d resigned myself to not being able to do within my limitations. I hadn’t realised how much I had missed it.”
For Paula Knight, it was seeing gigs again. The 50-year-old, from Bristol, has been bedridden for two years with severe myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME) and had to give up going to concerts. Like many artists, her favourite band, Low, are doing weekly Instagram shows from home during the lockdown. “[Watching them] felt elating, especially when they played my favourite song,” she said. “I was alone in my bedroom but felt part of the audience because everyone else was too. Suddenly, it seems like the abled world I used to inhabit has become accessible to me.”
Brian Spalding, 47, who has been on bed rest for four years with spina bifida, can now socialise with his friends online. “Since lockdown I have actually felt better about my situation, given all of society now experiencing a form of ‘bed rest’,” he said. Spalding, who lives in Argyll, Scotland, is even giving advice to loved ones on how to cope with isolation when they feel anxious or stressed. “I’m finding my community, for so long seeming so much further away, is now literally so much closer to home.”
For others, lockdown has seen career doors open. Laura Elliott, in Sheffield – who has hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, which affects connective tissue, and ME – has always wanted to be a writer. The 28-year-old has been mostly housebound since 2016 and has had a few short stories published in magazines, whilst plugging away at a novel.
“For years, I’ve been looking wistfully at Penguin’s Write Now scheme, which provides potential year-long support for under-represented writers trying to break into the industry, including those with disabilities. Sadly, they’ve always required physical attendance at workshops before,” she said. But because of coronavirus, suddenly the scheme will be conducted online. It means for the first time, Elliot was able to send in an application. “It’s entirely possible I won’t be selected – but at least now I’ll know, instead of being prevented from even giving it a try.”
Last week, churches and cathedrals across the UK broadcast Easter services online, with the archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, speaking from his kitchen using an iPad. Karin Turner, 42, who has a brain injury and broken ankle, is now able to “go to church” online with her pastor in his living room.
“I had been missing the feeling of community. Being able to listen to my pastor preach, hear stories about what is happening in the wider community and have some leadership has made the difference,” she said. “Of course, you can pray and have faith at home, but a big part of Christianity is community and it is difficult to feel cut off from that.”
Even healthcare has opened up; disabled people who have long campaigned to see their doctors virtually, report they are now being offered Skype time with consultants.
As well as joy at being offered new opportunities, many feel frustrated that it took the non-disabled world to become house-bound before access was granted. Emma Duke, 21, who has Pots syndrome – which results in an abnormally increased heart rate after sitting up or standing – and neurological problems, has been trying to get remote access to film classes for her degree for the last three years in Los Angeles. She was frequently refused – “I was told it wasn’t ‘feasible’” – but the coronavirus pandemic means her entire university is now online.
“I am so torn between being so grateful that I can get my education and […] feeling a bit betrayed that it was possible the whole time,” she said.
Rather than “more” opportunities opening up, 30-year-old Tom Staniford in Exeter describes the phenomenon as a levelling of the playing field. “I find it infuriating to see people moaning about reduced mobility, challenges of remote working, fear of illness risk, long periods of isolation – all things many disabled people already endure on a daily basis,” said Staniford, who has the rare MDP syndrome, which leaves him with physical and auditory disabilities. He thinks the lockdown could open up the chance for permanent accessibility. “But my overriding suspicion is it will be a massive missed opportunity.”
Turner is more hopeful. “I feel like people are finally understanding the physical barriers disabled people face,” she said. “I’m actually really optimistic good will come out of this.”
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