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Opinion piece

How will the COVID-19 pandemic impact on disabled people’s rights?

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Rick Williams

Business Disability Forum Ambassador Rick Williams shares his thoughts and concerns about the long-term impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on disabled people’s rights.

The current approach to managing the fall out of Covid-19 is having a major adverse impact on many disabled people. They are being excluded and situations are arising which are in and of themselves discriminatory or would have been before Covid-19 guidelines were issued. The guidelines take priority over equality but undermine the legal framework around which we have built our approach since the early 1990s including using the social model. Health and safety, of course, takes priority but also much of the guiding principle behind the Covid-19 guidance is based on the medical model approach to managing disability.  The guidelines often talk about specific conditions or people over a certain age. This approach clearly undermines the social model and does not consider the impact of a condition but rather its name. People with specific conditions and those over 70 were told to isolate but this took no account of actual risk and was based on stereotypical and medical model thinking.

In a time of emergency this might be necessary although I’m not convinced. However, my concern is that the thinking behind current Covid-19 guidelines will become the new way of thinking about disability when it is actually the old way and takes us back to the 1970s or earlier.

An example is that disabled people who typically would have been given some assistance when shopping will no longer be able to receive that assistance due to the distancing rules. This impact will increase as various other businesses begin to unlock. There are ways that this is being got around by a few stores, but it seems that this is up to the individual stores and not a policy-based approach.

What concerns me is once these Covid-19 guidelines become codified into organisational policy and practice there is a real risk they will become the accepted ways of thinking and working especially as they are easier for organisations.

It is not yet clear how this might impact or undermine current approaches in detail although there are one or two obvious examples. For example, the distancing rule in retail outlets means that no support involving touching will be allowed – no guiding hand to a chair, lip reading might well become an issue, handling of products might prove problematic, no cash being accepted might be excluding and so on. This approach establishes a mildly hostile albeit unintended, environment which will be standardised and over time will become the way people believe it should be and will be embedded in their own thoughts and behaviours. It is a relatively small step from there for organisations to accept this as a ‘new norm’ and then it undermines the whole concept of adjustments. Many disabled people have their own ways of maximising their independence such as accepting a guiding hand or being passed objects to examine. The removal of these relatively minor interventions has had and will continue to have a major impact on disabled consumers. Early indications are they will simply stop engaging in wider society as this is the easiest option.

Often now the approach is ‘bring someone with you to provide that support’. However, this is not universal, and several retailers are already discouraging going into stores with someone. Even if an additional person is accepted and someone can be found to accompany the disabled customer (and often it is not possible) this passes the responsibility of making adjustments back to the individual and does not need organisations to consider the social model approach or to make adjustments.

Clearly there is a balance to be struck about managing the issues arising out of the current pandemic and ensuring a modern and proactive approach to managing disability and access.

My call is for the rights and experiences of disabled customers (who have an estimated £212 billion to contribute to the UK economy) to be factored into national level considerations and included in all Covid-19 related guidelines. If Government cannot or will not act, then perhaps it is time for businesses to lead the way on this and not abandon the hard work they have done on embedding adjustments for disabled people. Some creativity and new ways of thinking and acting might be needed but we have shown that we can do this in the past so surely, we can rise to this new challenge now?

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