Post-COVID-19 Reboot Offers Ideal Chance to Reimagine Inclusion

May 20, 2020

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Isolated. Excluded. Inconvenienced. You probably have experienced one or more of these emotions due to COVID-19 and the rigid restrictions it has forced into our lives.

In recent weeks, nearly everyone has battled the ongoing challenges these conditions pose. But for one part of the population, it’s nothing new. That adds needed emphasis to today, Global Accessibility and Awareness Day. The day is dedicated to talking, thinking and learning about digital access and inclusion for people with different disabilities.

Many persons with disabilities (PWDs) – including 61 million in the United States and more than 1.3 billion worldwide – have battled against isolation, exclusion and inconvenience for a lifetime.

The onset of this virus only further complicated things:

  • Consider a deaf person who may rely on lip-reading to follow a conversation and facial expression to determine tone, two social cues lost to face masks.
  • Think about a person with mobility issues, particularly those with limited hand coordination. Just getting supplies can be a challenge. How then will they effectively disinfect themselves AND their supplies?

Thankfully, for the mask example, a solution is available: add a transparent strip around the mouth of the mask. It’s an innovation born of necessity. And a proof point that overcoming inclusion challenges can be done.

It also may be a silver lining to COVID-19. We’ve each caught a tiny glimpse into the isolation and inconvenience that so many in the disabled community live with every day. While certainly not apples-to-apples, this experience surely opened our eyes – and hopefully our minds – motivating us to move inclusion forward.

More than meets the eye

While I don’t think of myself as such, I fit the definition of a PWD due to a partial hearing loss and rheumatoid arthritis. Both are rarely obvious. Even so, I may need a little help on occasion from things like a wireless mouse or an external mic to limit my typing.

But whether our conditions are obvious or not, many PWDs struggle to find a comfortable place within society. PWDs are resourceful and resilient; we have to be because so many times we are left to provide our own solutions to issues with everything from housing to transportation to employment. And as society works to survive a pandemic, real assistance with those efforts may draw less attention. Consider the prevailing attitude as protests pop up all over the country: We need to focus on reopening economies and restoring jobs. True enough. But in tackling these priorities, it’s likely that everything else fades into the background.

That’s why inclusion warrants our attention more than ever.

Rewriting the requirements

Almost every challenge presents an opportunity, including COVID-19. There may be no greater opportunity than in the workplace.

One thing the global pandemic quickly proved is that millions of people can work remotely. And if they can, why can’t more PWDs? (Workplace accommodations are often cited by employers as a leading reason they don’t hire more PWDs.) According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2019, 19.3% of PWDs were employed, while for persons without a disability, that number was 66.3%.

Thousands of companies are already rethinking how – and even IF – they will bring their employees back to the workplace. Every one of these plans is going to require a multitude of changes, special processes and things that will require some level of difficulty to achieve.

And yet, to keep everyone safe, it must be done. How then can we make sure that everyone is actually a part of those plans? It can’t be enough to put so much effort into reshaping society collectively and workplaces specifically while leaving this vital part of our population behind.

Let’s turn the frustration of having been cooped up at home for months into energy that transforms our world into one that everyone can be part of. Let’s not allow the need for social distancing to make us emotionally distant where inclusivity is concerned.

As our nation slowly returns to the workplace or chooses other work arrangements, if you’re a decision-maker, inject inclusion into those plans. Talk to your employees with disabilities or even partner with the disabled community in the planning process.

If the decisions aren’t yours, make your voice heard. Hold tight to what you experienced during the spring of our discontent. Ask how your company is including those for whom the battle against exclusion continues.