'Our Needs Were Invisible Until They Became Everyone's': Coloradans With Disabilities Reflect On Pandemic, What Comes Next
As vaccines become more widely available, some people are eager for a return to life before the pandemic. But many Coloradans with disabilities are worried about the termination of accessibility measures.
The pandemic helped break barriers for people with disabilities to work from home and easily attend events like online concerts and remote church services without judgment.
For disabled folks who advocated for these measures years before, the inclusion felt bittersweet.
Julie Reiskin, executive director of the disability rights organization Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition, said many people in her community disagree with the notion of "going back to normal."
"What was normal was not equitable," Reiskin said. "The pandemic experience in America brought to light inequities in a whole bunch of areas and one of the things that terrifies me is we're just gonna forget that it happened."
KUNC’s Colorado Edition asked Coloradans with disabilities to send us emails and messages about what the pandemic was like for them. We wanted to learn how they navigated the last year, and what they want the world to look like when it’s over.
Only when convenient
Jessalyn Elliott Small, an autistic advocate in Aurora, Colorado, said she gained remote access to all sorts of events during the pandemic. This was simply because coronavirus prevented able-bodied people from accessing the things she had never been able to.
“It hurt that our needs were so invisible until they became everyone's needs,” Small said. “Remote accommodations such as work from home, online school, and even things like conventions, family gatherings, church and concerts are all things that would have benefited disabled people to have access to a long time ago.”
Small is scared of the world going back to normal because people could forget how many with disabilities will still be stuck at home after the pandemic ends.
“It scares me that any inches we gained for accessibility during the pandemic could be lost when they are no longer convenient for able-bodied folks,” she said.
Allison Dawson of Laporte shares Small’s fear. She feels uncomfortable hearing others talking about “opening up” when she knows her life won’t change much.
Dawson also said the pandemic shed light on how the disability community is often viewed as “expendable.”
“Watching statements from people who refuse to wear masks or socially distance, and seeing that they found the disability community and their elders completely expendable, was so disheartening,” Dawson said. “I knew that there were attitudes like this toward disability before, but this eugenic, survival of the fittest type-thinking being broadcast out loud was appalling and sad.”
For lots of disabled Coloradans, it was impossible to get essential care and support during the pandemic due to a shortage of personal care attendants.
The Bouldec family of Broomfield experienced this strain. Robin Bouldec cares for her 67-year-old husband Bruce, who is fully paralyzed due to primary progressive multiple sclerosis.
Prior to the pandemic, Bruce had an active lifestyle supported by a team of six care attendants. Right after it began, the Bouldecs lost three attendants, and have been unable to replace them since.
“Finding an attendant is challenging — while we look for the skills and work history of a candidate, we also must consider their risk factors for bringing COVID-19 into our home,” Robin said. “We are still struggling with what was once a personal attendant shortage and is now a personal attendant crisis as the hiring pool has been greatly diminished.”
On the flip side, Robin said the major advancements of virtual and telemedicine during the pandemic has made Bruce’s many doctor’s appointments much easier.
A better sense of understanding
For blind Coloradans who rely on physical touch for navigation, getting around during the pandemic was difficult.
Dan Berlin of Fort Collins said, “I tend to get around, say, a grocery store, by touching the products that are there and oftentimes reaching out and feeling the surface or a doorway. During COVID, of course, touching has become a pretty negative thing to be doing out in public.”
Berlin said it was hard to know if people around him were wearing masks, or how far away he was from someone. Luckily, he has a five-foot long white walking cane that helped him create a social distance circle.
Since the pandemic forced many into isolation for the first time ever, Berlin wants more people to see it as a constant reality for some members of the disability community.
“Hopefully that brings awareness and a better sense of understanding to those that might struggle a little bit more at getting out of their home on their own.”
You can listen to a full conversation about how the pandemic has impacted people with disabilities in this episode of Colorado Edition. It features the executive director of Colorado Cross Disability Coalition, Julie Reiskin.