Accessibility Challenges in Times of Pandemic

Greetings readers,

Welcome back to the blog!

Today is International Day of Persons with Disabilities. It is an international awareness day to raise awareness on challenges faced by people with disabilities, and of course, this work is important not just for today, but for every day.

The COVID-19 pandemic has a lot of our lives turned upside down, this is true for disabled and non disabled people alike. However, the lives of disabled people are made even more challenging at times, due to inaccessibility, and adapting to this new normal way of life, as best as we could. In today’s blog, I want to highlight some of these challenges I’ve faced as a person with disabilities, navigating life in a pandemic.

Zoom and Teams Meeting Awkward Moments:

Since the pandemic, work and study from home is the new normal. This is good in a way, because it’s made more accessible to disabled people, that can’t physically work or study outside of their homes. Ultimately, this new way of working and studying from home rely on technologies or softwares such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams.

Personally, I’ve used both softwares, and for the most part, they are compatible with other assistive technologies I use as a visually impaired person (i.e. I use a screen reader, magnifier, and voice over). But sometimes, the ‘inaccessibility’ isn’t coming from the technology itself, but it comes from the event or meeting I participate in. One of the challenges I’ve had is sort of related to a communication barrier, and this happens in real life conversations, too. Sometimes in communication and participation, people like to put up their hand before speaking, or casting a vote (in a meeting for instance). In real life, I’ve already raised this kind of concern many times, I tell people that, I don’t often see when people put their hand up, or when I put up my hand, I don’t know when I could start speaking, and I don’t want to speak over someone. I often need more verbal cues instead of visual ones to communicate, so it’s best if people could give me that kind of assistance. I’ve found similar communication challenge in these Zoom and Teams video calls. As a result, I’ve found myself speaking less in virtual meetings or events than in in-person ones, because I’m having trouble having to communicate my needs at every event or meeting. On another note, Teams has a “hand up” function but, I still need someone to give me the verbal cue to let me know that I can speak now. These challenges may seemed minor, but they can be embarrassing sometimes.

Digital Inaccessibility:

Digital inaccessibility is an on-going issue, but it is heightened during the pandemic. When important information or info graphs about the pandemic made on government websites or just on websites in general, that aren’t made accessible to people that use screen readers or voice over, or any other assistive technology, that’s unacceptable. I’ve tested these sites and info graphs again and again, and they aren’t as accessible (to date) as they should be. Fortunately, I can still access some of these important information, if I zoom in on the info graphs for instance to get information, but that’s not the point here. The point is that, such important information as these should be made available to everyone. This makes me think: Have they thought through or tested on accessibility before putting up these information…so I guess, maybe not.

Social/Physical Distancing Disaster

Physical distancing and visual impairment don’t mix, it just doesn’t work at all sometimes. I know the importance of physical distancing, to stay apart in order to stay safe, for myself and for those around me. However, how can I distance from others when I can’t see well? Or, for some people, that can’t see at all? It’s nearly impossible, if I’m being honest. But, I still do my best, and for the most part, people have been kind and considerate, when they see me and my white cane- they get out of my way and give me space. Although, my rule of thumb with physical distancing (with my limited vision I only got to make it work) is to stay as far apart as possible. So yes, I’ve stayed 4 meters or more apart sometimes waiting in line, and I’m OK with that.

Patio Trouble:

The pandemic has created a lot of hardships on small businesses and on restaurants. Even though I’m not a restaurant owner myself, I’ve both heard and read many stories of how the pandemic has caused a big blow to their business and industry, and I can only imagine their pain and suffering.

Due to the 3 months shut down of the economy in the spring, and when COVID-19 was better controlled throughout most of the summer, businesses started back up, including restaurants, and of course, their patios. This was welcomed news for these businesses and I was really happy for them. But, I must say, with the expansion of patios, they (whoever’s responsible for regulating patio spaces) must not have thought through accessibility on sidewalks! As a matter of fact, even before COVID, I don’t think people have thought through patio spaces well enough. Patio spaces that are taking up spaces on pedestrian sidewalks aren’t usually disability/accessibility friendly, especially for pedestrians with disabilities. They take up spaces. They make it confusing for someone like me, who is visually impaired to navigate around. They sometimes make it nearly impossible for pedestrians to walk on the sidewalk, but having to walk in traffic instead. For any body, that’s not very safe, and for someone like me, that can be extremely dangerous. This is why I love patios that are designed at the back of restaurants, or on roof tops. At the same time, I know this may not be possible for every restaurant, but I believe, a redesign of patio spaces is needed, and to think through for people with different accessibility needs.

Challenges with Mask Wearing:

We now know that mask is another added layer of protection against the virus. And I’m someone that is very supportive of the use of masks, I wore them before the pandemic (for health reasons), and I’ll still wear them even after the pandemic is over. But, mask wearing isn’t accessible for everyone, just to give a few examples: people with hearing difficulties or people that rely on lip reading may not be able to wear a mask, or communicate with people who wear masks (at least not the traditional masks, but there are clear window masks available out there); people with certain medical conditions, may not be able to wear a mask, and in some cases, these people are exempt from wearing one. But for me, someone that doesn’t have a diagnosed hearing issue, I’ve still found wearing a mask difficult at times. I found it difficult to hear people when they are wearing a mask, and what’s more, I can hardly hear myself with my mask on. I feel like I need to shout sometimes, which will make me more exhausted. I also have a tendency to ask those I’m speaking to repeatedly, if they can hear me. And for the most part, people tell me that they can hear me, and I don’t need to shout. Even with these challenges, I still wear a mask and will continue to do so. Here are a few tips I’ve found helpful with mask wearing, and making hearing much easier: I learned to get cloth mask with a lighter texture or material, so at least people can hear me and I can hear myself a bit better. And, for disposable masks, I learned a trick to tie a nod on both ear loops, then fold both left and right sides/corners of the mask inward, (if you don’t understand this explanation, just google search “Mask Hacks”). The hack is supposed to help with mask fitting, but I also found it makes speaking (and breathing) much easier.

This is the end of today’s blog (and rant) on accessibility challenges in times of pandemic. Can you relate to some of these challenges? Or, do you have other challenges that you’d like to share? Feel free to comment your thoughts, rants, struggles. You’re not alone, none of us are alone. There is light at the end of the tunnel, and we can all get through this!

By: The Invisible Vision Project

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