My pandemic epiphany: watching the world open up for disabled people

Frances Ryan
·3-min read

When lockdown began, chronic illness meant I’d already been stuck at home for a couple of years. It was my own self-isolation before self-isolation was in the lexicon, except with less sourdough. I won’t say I was used to missing the world outside my bedroom because it is never a thing you truly get used to. House plants are not great conversationalists. A glass of wine in a restaurant is a thing of beauty to long for. But you adapt, because circumstances are demanding like that.

Related: Chronic illness has made me a self isolation expert: here's how to ease yourself out of lockdown

If the pandemic created one shared experience, it was this sense of missing out. Fomo went global and the world got creative to cope. Theatres went online. Museums hosted virtual tours. Work held meetings over Zoom. Musicians streamed gigs live to fans. As a disabled person, the weeks that followed lockdown were like going through Alice’s looking glass.

Overnight, parts of every day living –work, the arts, education, socializing – that had disappeared from disabled people’s lives due to a mix of poor access or health conditions were available again. At a time in which the general population – including disabled people – had never been more restricted, there was a paradoxical sense of freedom. Suddenly, everyone was a little housebound and life opened up because of it.

Lying in bed, YouTube glowing on the screen, I watched the first play I had in years, transported in a flash to New Orleans and King George’s court. Friends and family launched quiz nights; if I wasn’t going out on a Friday night, no one else was either. Art galleries with multiple steps – and no ramp – opened their doors through the laptop. Anyone who has ever been deprived of normal life knows regaining it is about more than simply being able to see a play or gig. It is akin to finding something you’ve lost, as if a part of you comes back with it.

The secret was out: the world could be accessible. Inequality was actually a choice.

I began to speak to other disabled people experiencing similar things: bosses that had turned them down when they got ill now let employees work from home, universities that banned virtual learning were putting their degrees online. It was frustrating and joyful, obvious and revelatory. The secret was out: the world could be accessible. Inequality was actually a choice.

I’m not sure that realization was my own personal pandemic epiphany – perhaps it would be more accurate to say it was the world’s. Disabled people, after all, always knew life could become accessible with just a few changes. It just took a global pandemic for everyone else to notice.

As bars, the office and museums are slowly reopening across the world, it would be easy to go back to business as usual – to forget what society has learnt, to abandon the minority now that the majority are catered for. Major theatres have already stopped their online showings. Employees working from home are starting to feel insecure about losing their jobs. But if we all have to go through this crisis, society may as well make some gains along the way. The new normal could be more accessible than the old.