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Why coronavirus may make the world more accessible

By Matthew Keegan14th May 2020 - BBC.COM

For many people with disabilities, options like remote working have been needed for years. Workplaces around the world have now made this shift. Are there other ways the world could become more accessible, too?

I once asked a previous employer if it was possible to work from home. I live with a progressive neuromuscular condition called Charcot-Marie-Tooth that causes the muscles in my feet, ankles and lower legs to gradually atrophy.

I had recently been fitted with an ankle-foot-orthotic – a lower leg splint – to improve my walking and prevent frequent trips and falls. Wearing it all day long in the office was proving uncomfortable. Working from home seemed like the best solution and I was sure I could be more productive.

The nature of my job meant I worked almost exclusively online and on a computer. Still, my request was not approved. The company couldn’t make the accommodation, I was told, since it meant others might request the same and the IT systems couldn’t really support lots of people working from home all at the same time. I felt I had no other option than to hand in my notice.

Now here we are, in the grip of a pandemic – and suddenly, in many cases within a week, organisations the world over with thousands of staff were able to switch to remote working and rolled out systems remarkably quickly to enable it.

“Hopefully this pandemic has shown people that you can be trapped at home, by no fault of your own, and you can still contribute,” says Mik Scarlet, an expert in the field of access and inclusion for disabled people. “In the same way that we’re trying to plan our end of lockdown, can we also plan for the end of society being inaccessible?”

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With millions under lockdown, many non-disabled people are experiencing, for the first time, how it feels to have external barriers preventing you from participating in everyday life. But although countries around the world have put policies and practices in place to make public spaces, workplaces and other aspects of society more accessible, many barriers still exist for people with disabilities.

With disabled people making up 15% of the global population, greater accessibility has the potential to improves millions of lives of those 1.3 billion people. But it would help the non-disabled population, too. Of course, some changes towards accessibility – such as having buttons at a more accessible height, or making audio descriptions available in museums – wouldn’t have made everyone safer in this epidemic. But other changes, had they been implemented earlier, could have.

Many of the solutions we’ve needed for this pandemic are the same solutions, like remote working, that disabled people have been requesting for years

Scarlet points out that many of the solutions we’ve needed for this pandemic are the same solutions, like remote working, that disabled people have been requesting for years. If we had already built a physically inclusive and accessible society, more could have been done to shorten lockdowns. Take, for example, the layout and design changes that help people with mobility issues. If all doors already had opened automatically, it would be easier for people with some types of disabilities to move freely. But it also means that no-one would need to touch the doors – which would mitigate one risk of infection, and potentially mean that everyone could, theoretically, go out more, or sooner.

Similarly, if the gaps between store aisles were wider, as they’re meant to be for wheelchair users and others, then everyone today would be better able to socially distance. And if pavements were wider, people could walk past each other without breaking the rules. "It’s funny how so many of the things that disabled people have been saying to architects, town planners and councils for years have suddenly become the very problems that are forcing us to have to continue lockdown for longer than we would do because of the way we have designed society," Scarlet says.

A survey of 27,000 retail outlets found that 20% don’t provide access to wheelchair users

Despite movements to make society more accessible in recent years, there is still a long way to go. One global survey found that although 90% of businesses say they prioritise diversity, only 4% were working on becoming more inclusive for people with disabilities. In the UK, a 2018 study found that 75% of disabled people have had to leave a shop or business due to the lack of understanding or awareness of their needs, and a survey of 27,000 retail outlets found that 20% don’t provide access to wheelchair users. And just last year, a federal appeals court in the US city of St Louis, Missouri granted the city’s decision to deny a remote working request to a disabled employee. According to a further Bloomberg Law analysis of cases, employers had won 70% of the rulings over the past two years on whether they could reject workers’ bids to work from home as an accommodation for a disability.

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