BY JOEL DEMBE
It’s hard not to be caught up in the news-vortex surrounding COVID-19. Whether it’s the daily press briefings from world leaders or the deluge of facts and figures that illuminate the true deadliness of the disease, it can be difficult for even the most optimistic among us to feel inspired.
Even scarier is the fact that we simply do not know what the immediate future will bring to our lives. Many people have lost their jobs. Parents are struggling with childcare. And countless small businesses will continue to suffer even as social-distancing restrictions are lifted.
COVID-19 has also illustrated the disparities that continue to exist among the most vulnerable.
People with disabilities (PWDs) have paid a staggering price amid this global pandemic. In Canada, it has also exposed numerous fallacies within our long-term care system in addition to wealth inequalities. And while 2019 brought our country its first national accessibility law, it is evident there are many more steps that need to be taken to continue drive inclusion for PWDs.
But for all of these challenges, I see a few positives. During these profound times, we might see more opportunities to drive inclusion PWDs. Here’s a few opportunities that I hope stick around long after the pandemic is over:
Shopping: Ask anyone who uses a mobility device AND does their own retail or grocery shopping—they will tell you that it can truly be an exercise in patience. The process of finding a fully-accessible storefront, navigating transit or parking, not to mention lifting items into a cart (all the while using a wheelchair at the same time), always made it a difficult routine for me.
When COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, many businesses—both large and small—had to pivot their shopping experiences to delivery and pick-up models in order to remain open. Many of us, especially those without a disability, are now relying on much easier ways to purchase goods in an easier, safer environment on a regular basis.
Shopify, a true Canadian success story, has played a major part in helping small-to-medium sized businesses shift to an e-commerce environment. I personally welcome these changes as a wheelchair-user. I hope as restrictions are lifted that we do not stop these new and innovative shopping solutions.
Flexible work and remote tech: For many of us who are now working from home, we’ve had to rely on video conferencing tools to meet with our clients and colleagues. And though there have been several major hiccups along the way, many of us are becoming more comfort- able conversing with each other in a remote environment.
Working from home will help save lives—especially those with disabilities. These software tools can perhaps bridge the gap to those in our population who simply do not have the ability to leave home to attend in-person meetings.
PWDs have been relying on these types of tools for years. With unemployment numbers much higher among those with disabilities in Canada, my hope is that work-from-home technologies will continue to emerge and bring more PWDs into the workforce.
Impact of PSWs: For those of us who rely on personal support workers (PSWs), we are now reconciling with the fact that this group has too often been undervalued. I truly hope that this pandemic will inspire action to better support these workers. COVID-19 has exposed far too many stories of PSWs who have died because of their commitment to helping support our disabled and elderly population.
As Canada continues to age, we need to better support these diverse—and often heroic—group of workers.
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to deliver a TED-Talk on disability. The crux of my presentation was that we as a society needed better focus on enabling independence. I had recently retired from competing in the international wheelchair tennis circuit (ITF) and for the most part, had accomplished most of my goals on the court. I was fiercely independent and wanted to promote inclusion and independence.
But now I neglected to reinforce the most important part of all. We need more compassion and empathy. We need it from business, community and political leaders if we are going to get through the next few years together. So let’s push forward as a nation, take care of one another and continue to speak up for inclusion.
Joel Dembe is a Paralympian, public speaker and global advocate for accessibility and inclusion. He was Canada’s top-ranked wheelchair tennis player (2011-2015), winning more than thirty titles internationally.