Public-health measures have transformed the way people exist in their environments in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19. Yet, some protocols implemented in the name of health and safety have created additional barriers for people with disabilities.
Caden Flynn is a 19-year-old university student from Halifax who lives with cerebral palsy. Throughout the pandemic, Flynn has spoken on social media about protocols, such as the removal of public seating in shopping malls, that have rendered some public spaces inaccessible for people with disabilities.
“We’re so tied up in enforcing COVID restrictions – as (we) should be – but we’ve completely dropped the ball on enforcing accessibility,” Flynn says.
Flynn says that, for many people with disabilities, the pandemic created contrasting circumstances. On one hand, additional barriers have been created. On the other hand, he says accommodations that people with disabilities have fought to have access to for years, like working from home, have been rapidly made available.
“For years, we’ve been told that ‘we can’t do that. There’s no way to do that.’ Then, all of a sudden, when COVID came along, we magically found a way to make this work for everyone,” he says.
The Accessible Canada Act (Bill C-81), which came into force on July 11, 2019, is mandated to implement policies that remove barriers faced by people with disabilities. Federally regulated agencies are mandated by Bill C-81 to consult with people with disabilities to create and implement accessibility plans.
However, many private establishments do not have the same accommodations implemented – and those who require such accommodations have felt the effects adversely.
“I know that many of my hearing-impaired friends are having a very hard time, because many businesses haven’t invested in masks that are see-through,” Flynn says.
Barrier-Free Manitoba is a coalition of individuals and organizations that work together to push legislation mandating the removal and prevention of barriers for people with disabilities. David Kron, the spokesperson for the organization, says it is crucial to ensure accommodations for people with disabilities don’t get “stamped out” due to COVID-19 protocol.
“We know a balance has to be achieved, but we want to be heard,” Kron says.
While Barrier-Free Manitoba aims to tackle accessibility on a systemic (rather than individual) level, Kron stresses that being attentive to the needs of people with disabilities can happen on a small scale, too. He says this can mean anything from ensuring content is offered in plain language with large-text options to not parking in an accessible spot if you don’t require one.
Flynn attests to the importance of asking questions.
“There seems to be a misconception that disabled people don’t want to be bothered,” Flynn says. “I might decide that I don’t want your assistance, but I might say yes, and I might be too afraid to ask.”
“People don’t realize that accessibility doesn’t stop at my ability to get into school or a hospital. It’s often overlooked that we are social. We have friends, we have families, and we want to be able to experience life with them.”
Published in Volume 75, Number 14 of The Uniter (January 13, 2021)