Do we see an opportunity for the disabled in the new normal?

By Shruti Pushkarna

In times ridden with conflicting opinions about almost everything under the sun, I think we can safely agree that Covid-19 has changed how we interact with the environment. And I’m not just referring to the natural surroundings but also the environment where daily professional and social engagements take place.

The world is rapidly changing. And yet one thing remains the same. The intrinsic need to validate our existence. In the absence of physical interactions, we still want to be ‘seen’ and ‘heard’.

‘Visibility’ is what defines us. And visibility is what we don’t offer to the disabled population of the country. The famous proverb ‘out of sight, out of mind’ is an apt description. Their near-absence in places of employment, education and entertainment have made them non-existent to the ableist majority.

The biggest roadblock to inclusion is the lack of access to spaces and services. Inability to access schools, offices, banks, parks, hotels, cinema, shopping malls, et cetera prevents the disabled population from participating in mainstream activities. When coronavirus and the lockdown blocked every citizen’s access to these facilities, alternate forms of functioning emerged.

However incongruous it sounds, the pandemic has given hope of ending the marginalisation of persons with disabilities. What seemed illusory three months ago, has become the new normal. Limitations have given way to opportunities. At least that’s how I see it through my ‘glass half-full’ lens.

For a working professional, the physical office and the 9-to-5 rote has transformed into a flexi-virtual space. For school and college students, learning and assessments now happen via online classrooms. Training modules are being retailored to suit digital modes of delivery. World Wide Web is the latest hangout for families and friends.

With the physical barriers gone, access to technology can make the links in the chain of dependency disappear. Operating remotely, using internet and computer (or a smartphone), opens up job options for people with vision impairment, hearing or speech impairment, orthopaedic or any other form of disability. There are several disabled people employed in content development, finance and legal operations, public relations, IT, academics and so on.

Similarly, online classrooms and digital study material can make education accessible for a disabled student equipped with assistive technology. Equal opportunities in education and employment can replace the archaic notions of charity and reservation with a more merit-driven approach to inclusion.

Training and skill development programmes offered by NGOs in limited locations, are now available online to disabled people across the country. Travel or accommodation cost is no longer a deterrent.

Today, technology offers a wide range of tools that can lessen the burden of educating, training and employing persons with disabilities. And Covid-19 has paved way for technological innovations to drive all aspects of daily living.

The Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act 2016 says that the problem is not with the disability per se, but with the environment which is inaccessible. And hence the emphasis on ensuring ‘reasonable accommodation’. This is in line with the historic American Disabilities Act which also states that a lot of the problems with disability are more societal and environmental.

Organisations working with the disabled, government bodies, educational institutions as well as the corporate sector need to work together on facilitating access to technology for the disabled population segregated in rural and urban parts of the country.

There is also a need to create mass awareness campaigns about the existing forms of assistive technology that enable independent living. The media has the chance to shape a novel tech-savvy image of a person with disability, obliterating the debilitating stereotype.