Our Responses to COVID-19 Must Center Disability Justice

Because of COVID-19, many places are putting in place accessibility measures and resources that they have not had before. For instance, many companies have now begun to allow employees to work from home, even if it was not permitted before COVID-19 measures were implemented. As a disabled person, I am both heartened and angry to see the things that I have been asking for a long time finally be implemented. However, many employers’ emergency measures are proving both slapdash and targeted toward abled people. This is not the same as thoughtful and meaningful accessibility measures grounded in disability justice.

Disability justice is a set of principles born out of queer and people-of-color-led disabled brilliance. Patty Berne, a Japanese-Haitian, queer disabled activist, has articulated this set of principles in a foundational way. I’m going to draw from these principles to provide a theoretical orientation to the ongoing need to reprioritize access issues amid the coronavirus pandemic, since for real change to happen, we need to get to the root of the issue.

First, please, if you are someone who is implementing changes right now, think about why you are making something accessible. If it is because you want to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the regulations will tell you exactly what you need to do. In other words, you’re just following laws, not necessarily thinking about theoretical frameworks. That’s not what I’m talking about right now. ADA compliance is extremely important, but it’s a floor, not a ceiling. I’m focusing on collective access, which is the ninth principle of Berne’s disability justice framework.

Collective Access

Berne writes,

A ninth principle is collective access, that as brown and queer crips we bring flexibility and creative nuance to engage with each other, that we value exploring and creating new ways of doing things that go beyond able bodied/minded normativity. Access needs [do] not need to be held in shame — we all have various capacities which function differently in different environments. Access needs can be articulated within a community and met privately or through a collective, depending on an individual’s needs, desires, and the capacity of the group. We can share responsibility for our access needs without shame, we can ask [our] needs be met without compromising [our] integrity, we can balance autonomy while being in community, we can be unafraid of our vulnerabilities knowing our strengths are respected.

Employers and organizations need to be committed not just to mitigating a pandemic, but to disability justice, collective access and a shared understanding that different ways of being in the world should be more than simply tolerated. We must recognize the unique value that disabled people bring to our lives and collective work. Of course, we as disabled people would still have a right to access if we did not contribute specifically to work-oriented projects and organizations, but that doesn’t change the fact that we are already making those kinds of contributions, and we are needed now more than ever.

So, what does accessibility look like when working toward collective access? In my experience, part of it is understanding that everyone deserves to have an equitable, comparable experience based on their needs. Right now, many organizations and businesses are quickly setting up work- and meet-from-home technologies in an attempt to “flatten the curve.” This can be great as long as all of the participants have the same opportunities to learn and participate. Before coronavirus, the few places that had remote access would often have a problematic set-up. For example, when in-person meetings occur at a physical location and all of the norms of those meetings are based on the needs of the people in the room, the people on the phone are an afterthought. So, while theoretically you are giving the disabled people at home “access” to the meeting, it’s not true access if the meeting starts before the tech is set up or if there isn’t captioning for deaf folks who want to participate.

This doesn’t have to be very complicated; just think about what the experience is like for people using different ways of access. Of course, you should also be hiring disability consultants, but disabled people have learned to ask for crumbs.

Further, if you as an employer or organizer need to put the resources into making these kinds of changes, it’s probably a lot cheaper than you think. In fact, you will likely end up saving money after skipping travel expenses, for example. Other major benefits beyond disability access, expense savings and keeping people safe from the coronavirus include reducing carbon footprints.

Now is a good time to think about whether in-person meetings work best for your goals, making sure to center the most marginalized. Of course, there are so many kinds of projects and tasks that need to be in-person, which it’s best not to be completely prescriptive. That said, people should think deeply about what does and doesn’t need to be in-person with consideration of the technologies, tools and concerns we have today, not outdated customs.

Collective Access Also Requires Individual Access

While working from home seems to be one of the most common responses that organizations are having to the outbreak, it’s important to remember that, for many people, moving to remote access may make something that was previously accessible now inaccessible. For example, I have a deaf friend who has an American Sign Language interpreter at school, and who will have trouble with her now online, uncaptioned class. It is extremely important to have a default level of access, which is why checklists for access issues are so important.

If you are doing things right, then you will have a lot of people with access needs, since that means more disabled people are participating. Even if you are following one of the great checklists out there, sometimes someone will need a unique accommodation. One of the things such checklists will tell you is to have a way for people to request specific accommodations. If your organization values disabled people, then the reaction to these requests should be to do everything you can to make it happen.

So many organizations seem to provide accommodations begrudgingly, looking for any reason to say no. This is ableist, and simply clarifying your organization’s orientation toward disability justice can lead to a lot of easy ways to make things more accessible.

A lot of accessibility concerns revolve around reasonable exceptions to small rules designed to stop people in the aggregate from doing something as opposed to individuals. For example, our local Pride event used to absolutely refuse to let anyone bring food or water in, even people like my friend with severe allergies who could not eat anything being sold there. While the policy as a whole makes sense, it’s the easiest thing in the world to just allow them and their family in with store-bought food. Simply taking the attitude of trying to make accommodations work and being willing to think critically about the rules that are in place will decrease some of the barriers for disabled people.

Intersectionality and Financial Access

Another principle of disability justice is intersectionality. That means our experiences as disabled people are also affected by our other identities. It’s not enough for the white, educated disabled people to have access, which is what tends to happen when policies aren’t thoughtful. Disability itself is also tied to other marginalizations, including poverty. Since disabled people are more likely to be poor, it’s also important to think about financial access.

Obviously, if your plan is to begin more regular, online meetings, everyone needs to have access to the technology to do that. Don’t assume that people have what they need, especially disabled people, since we are so often forced into poverty to be eligible for disability benefits. Working toward disability justice means also prioritizing access by poor and working-class people, and having a plan for making sure everyone has the resources they need to participate.

Disabled people are so amazing and different from each other that there is no one accommodation-fits-all rule, and we need to understand that at every level of planning. Berne’s theoretical framework, however, can help turn these unprecedented but hurried coronavirus measures into actual disability justice.