I’ve always struggled to work in an office setting. While the actual work has never been an issue, the environment makes me incredibly unproductive – it’s loud and unstructured and the social expectations make it hard for me to focus on anything else. So I’ve pushed, at every job I’ve ever had, for the privilege to work from home.
I’m not alone in this battle. In 2019, CBC reported “according to the 2012 Canadian Survey on Disability, the employment rate for autistic adults is only 14.3 per cent, compared to 92.7 per cent for the general population.” And a major reason for this gap is accessibility.
Up until very recently, using assistive technology has been discouraged by many organizations. In 2018, disabled writer Karrie Higgins wrote about being unable to attend an academic conference in person due to an unforeseen health emergency. When she suggested she deliver her presentation via Skype, she received an unenthusiastic response.
“Attendees appreciate when all panellist are physically present during the panel discussions and readings,” the conference organizer responded. “They tend to feel more involved when it’s a person-to-person interaction without the layer of technology between them.”
But it’s this technology that gives many disabled people the opportunity to participate in and contribute to society, in general. “These layers of technology do not come between disabled people and normates; it connects them,” wrote Higgins and co-author Katie Rose Guest Pryal.
Now that everyone else finds themselves in that same boat, it’s amazing the kinds of accessibility features we’re seeing. On Twitter, the hashtag #AccessibilityForAbleds details how easily the world has embraced exactly the kinds of supports and accommodations disabled people have been fighting for their entire lives.
“So you mean to tell me America could have been accessible the whole time?” asked @Imani_Barbari on March 12, as businesses began making the switch to have employees work from home – using remote conferencing tools and the very same video-chat service Higgins was told, just two years earlier, was a “layer of technology” that attendees didn’t care for.
“I’ve watched my disabled & chronically ill friends struggle with discrimination, prejudice, beliefs that we are lazy, and outright resistance because of their needs,” said Sarah Blahovec, @Sblahov. “Now those same entities are embracing the accommodations they’ve fought against.”
It hurts, Blahovec added, because it’s now clear those accommodations weren’t denied out of “legitimate concerns,” but “because they saw us as a burden because we couldn’t meet their preferences – NOT their needs.”
Additionally, among others, changes have been made to reduce the burden of debt on those with student loans and mortgages, data restrictions have been lifted by Internet providers and we can even bring huge bottles of hand sanitizer on the plane now – all accommodations that were clearly possible before, but refused to those in need of them.
Still, these shifts to encourage social distancing and keep people healthy are important. And maybe there’s the potential that, from this, a better, more accessible world can emerge.