I’m Visually Impaired. I Don’t Want Things to Go Back to Normal.
This pandemic is forcing society to make changes that should’ve been implemented a long time ago
This year has been full of surprises and changes for everyone because of the pandemic. Yet, as a visually impaired person, not all of these changes have been bad for me.
Before the pandemic, going to a restaurant and reading a menu independently seemed difficult, if not impossible. I am totally blind, and unless the menu is in Braille (which it usually is not) or in digital form, I have to rely on a sighted person to read the words and let me make my choice. In a short time span, I’ve seen this and other things, many of them less trivial, change. But I fear that these changes will disappear.
The case of restaurants, for example, may seem trivial on the surface. However, it’s significant because it is such a simple change to implement, and yet it took the world falling apart to do it.
In order to encourage social distancing, restaurant menus are being delivered digitally, through QR codes that, after being scanned, let our electronic devices access them. In addition to avoiding physical contact and thus helping to reduce the spread of the virus, this simple modification also allows me, as a blind person, to use the screen reader installed in my phone to read the menu content and select my options without any external help.
What happens in restaurants reflects other types of deeper structural changes, such as the sudden closing of work spaces and the implementation of remote work. While it’s true that distance working was used by several companies before the outbreak, opportunities for remote working jobs have always been fewer than traditional office positions.
Many companies, accustomed to conventional forms of work, refused to adapt (even when the work in question can be done perfectly well without commuting). For many people with disabilities, especially those living with chronic pain, fatigue, or other debilitating conditions, the refusal of many companies to take their situation into account meant that their employment opportunities were reduced day by day. The obligation to work in a traditional space that was not adapted to their health needs meant they had to turn down job offer after job offer, or be locked out of the market entirely, despite being amply qualified, as Keah Brown wrote in an article for Fast Company: “For an entire year, all of the publications I applied to ignored me after I disclosed that I was disabled and was hoping for a remote position.”
This encourages unnecessary economic and social dependence of some people with disabilities.
In the latest American Community Survey, 44.2% of blind people in the United States are employed in some way. Comparing this data with that of people without disabilities, with 77.2% of people employed and only 4.8% unemployed, there is still much to be done.
In many developing countries, such as my own, the lack of resources and awareness on the part of employers means that the situation is even more unfavorable. Remote working would allow me to counteract this with greater access to opportunities where my capabilities can be taken into account.
Furthermore, the proliferation of delivery systems and the increased possibilities of doing our shopping online is also one of those changes that, although small, makes an enormous difference to me. Many supermarkets, which previously did not have an online presence in some countries, are setting up websites with product catalogues so that products can be purchased in this way, and something similar is happening with more generic businesses. Specific generic delivery services are also expanding, allowing access to a much wider range of products from the comfort of our own homes.
Although I can go to a supermarket without any problems… I usually need to ask for help from a sighted person, usually a supermarket employee, especially because a product’s location may change on a day-to-day basis.
Telecommuting has opened the door to opportunities that would have been unthinkable to me before. Adopted long term, remote working would allow me to access a wider labor market, where my skills and qualifications are valued on an equal footing with other candidates. The labor market, which is already small when it comes to people without disabilities, is even smaller for me. While blind people have more opportunities than we did a few years ago, we still face major barriers to entering the job market.
Although I can go to a supermarket without any problems, if I want to find a particular brand of product, I usually need to ask for help from a sighted person, usually a supermarket employee, especially because a product’s location may change on a day-to-day basis.
Sometimes supermarket employees refuse to help me, and if they have ulterior motives, I am vulnerable to scams and unnecessary risks, such as receiving expired products or being forced to pay a higher price than the actual price of the product.
Online shopping services would minimize these problems and allow disabled people access to a higher level of independence.
The speed with which these changes have been implemented, and the failure of business and government to address the requests made by the disability community over the years, only shows me that we, as a minority, are often not heard, even though people with disabilities make up 15% of the world’s population.
Now that these changes are underway, albeit temporarily, the tide can turn because the world does not need to fall apart for things to change. Now that many of the changes we desire are becoming a reality, we cannot allow them to disappear in the same casual way that they arrived.
When this is all over and we enter into a “new normal” that seeks to resemble what we experienced before this pandemic, I don’t want things to go back to the way they were. I want to be able to hug and go out and share with my loved ones, like I did before all this happened, but I also want to be able to enjoy those positive things that this period — as challenging as it has been — brought with it. When we enter our “new normal,” I want the best of our lives before to be mixed with these positive changes that we are seeing now so that, when all this is over, we can find ourselves with a more inclusive and fairer world.