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Call out, Opinion piece

The law of unintended consequences – and the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on disabled people

Diane Lightfoot

Whilst there are lots of positives in how we are working now – and that is the subject of a previous blog! – there are also many very real negatives experienced by disabled people right now as so many of us continue to live in lockdown and with the virus. While we’ve seen lots of kindness and community, for some disabled people the reality has been very different.

We know that disabled people are amongst those most impacted by coronavirus with deaths disproportionately high. What is less well known is the shocking rise in hate crime against disabled people, and that has been explored in a BBC documentary on disability hate crime. A survey carried out by the charity Scope in July found that 1 in 5 disabled people were afraid to go out. At our annual conference in October, we heard of the loss of the kindness of “casual interventions” – and worse, the rise of abuse of disabled people in public. More recently, research carried out by disability charities Leonard Cheshire Disability and United Response shows that:

The use of the word “vulnerable” has perhaps not helped as official guidance and media coverage have seemed to conflate vulnerability to Covid-19 with disability. But someone who is say, a wheelchair user or who has dyslexia may be no more vulnerable to Covid-19 than anyone else. Conversely, there is a gaping hole in awareness of people who may be vulnerable in other ways.

The charity Disability Rights UK cites specific hate crime related to COVID-19 – for example, citing abuse towards people who cannot wear a face covering – and the lack of awareness amongst the general public of those who are genuinely exempt (and you can see a list of exemptions here). Similarly, there is a huge lack of awareness of people who cannot socially distance – perhaps because of a visual impairment or because they find it very difficult to judge distances. Distressingly, we are also hearing stories of hate crime against wheelchair users where the perpetrators are using their reduced ability to get out of the way quickly to crowd their personal space.

It’s great to see businesses and organisations taking it upon themselves to raise awareness. The RNIB’ and Hidden Disabilities’ Give Me Space campaign seeks to raise awareness of people who need help to socially distance through the creation of wearables available through the Hidden Disabilities Store.

We also need to make sure that, as we evolve at pace, solutions we put in place are solutions for all. We need to build in road bumps to our processes to make sure that they work for everyone and avoid the law of unintended consequences. Banning plastic straws is a good example of this: great for the environment, not so great for people who rely on them to drink. As are noiseless electric vehicles – lovely for noise pollution, not so lovely for people with a visual impairment who can’t see them coming!

Mahatma Gandhi said that ‘the true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members’. If our current performance is any indicator, we have some way to go.

Diane Lightfoot is CEO of Business Disability Forum

Link to BBC programme: “Targeted: The Truth About Disability Hate Crime”

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