By Rasheera D. Dopson
Let me first begin by saying these thoughts are hugely my own and I cannot speak for every person within the disability community. However, as a current disabled grad student, I realized from my own personal challenges that this conversation is much needed. From access to healthcare services to job loss to educational accommodation to social isolation, disabled individuals are facing higher rates of impact due to the COVID-19 crisis.
I was first awakened to the realities of being a disabled person amidst the COVID 19 crisis when I shot up with a fever at 103.7 in the middle of the night and had to trek my way to the emergency room. My immediate thought, however, was not if I had contracted the Coronavirus but all I could think about was that I was currently uninsured at risk, disabled, patient where would I go to get tested or treatment if something should happen to me.
I was awakened to the realities of being a disabled person amidst the COVID-19 crisis when the mask mandates began to circle. I saw friends and family on social media tearing each other down because of each of their own beliefs on wearing a mask. And then I realized that for me, the subject of mask-wearing was complicated because it traditional mask the ones that were available in the store would not fit on my face due to the structural anatomy of my face. This imposed a huge issue for someone like me who was both deaf/hard of hearing and had one ear. How could I access PPE equipment so that I could protect myself when going to the grocery store? Who could I ask to make me a mask that would fit my asymmetrical face and deformed ears? I didn’t want to be judged for my lack of mask-wearing because it was complicated. Society was placing all this pressure for individuals to wear a mask, totally oblivious to the fact that outside of health safety precautions, mask-wearing imposed a major communication barrier to individuals like myself. I had to decide if I wanted to be perceived as being socially acceptable or being deaf… I choose the former and put my deafness on the back burner.
I was awakened to the realities of a disabled person amidst the COVID-19 crisis when I started to host social groups online with other disabled women and they began to share with me the amount of loneliness they all felt because they were so isolated from their communities and friends. How these ladies with varying levels of disabilities, some on the Autism spectrum, some with seeing impairment, some with facial differences were lost in the sea of shut down mode because their new normal was not adjustable to their lifestyle or disability. Some of them facing extreme isolation for months because of ongoing medical treatment that had started way before the COVID-19 crisis ever began.
I was awakened to the realities of a disabled person amidst the COVID-19 crisis when I started grad school in the fall and my institution went completely virtual offering in-person class instruction over zoom video. However, none of the videos had captioning options. And I struggled in accessing accommodations services. For the first time in years, I felt like a fish underwater. Struggling and straining to hear every class lecture. I hadn’t felt that misplaced since grade school when my teachers realized that I was having a hard time hearing in class hence me not paying attention in school. I found myself with inner conflict, facing an irritating conundrum because I was now having to choose whether I wanted to advocate for myself or stay silent toughing it out. I was fearful of being made to feel different or causing too much trouble. I was a new student and I just wanted to blend in and find my grounding in my course work. I didn’t want to fight against all these barriers. Couldn’t I just be normal? How unfair it all seemed in having this battle, the battle between getting my education, and needing to hear.
The realities of being a disabled individual during the COVID-19 crisis have been harsh and unkind at times. I’m not unemphatic because I know the whole world is going through. The whole world is trying to find solutions to make things better, trying to find ways to readjust. But don’t forget ABOUT US! Many of these adjustments are still highly inaccessible to people with disabilities. I think I can speak for all when I say WE ARE TIRED OF ASKING TO BE INCLUDED! We are tired of constantly being asked to be a forethought and not an afterthought. We are all creating paths to new normal, disabled persons just wants to be included in your blueprint.