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Disability Will Be Part of the New Normal

May 1, 2020
Source: Forbes

Predicting the highlights of the post-pandemic new normal is the new rage. But how should we begin to think about the new normal for people with disabilities? With “abnormal” a common stand-in for “disabled,” let’s jettison the “ab.” Disability is normal, even common, affecting some 20% of the U.S. population. The only abnormal part of disability is that much of society still blanches at moving beyond lip service or grudging regulatory compliance when it comes to providing access to the disabled in normal work, school and social environments.

As unwelcome and threatening as the novel coronavirus is, its arrival during the run-up to the 30th anniversary of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act commands attention. By forcing people all over the U.S. to shelter in place, this virus is introducing America to how so many people with disabilities lived their lives before the passage of the ADA – and so many who still do. People with vision, hearing, mobility and cognitive challenges to functionality have found themselves living out their days inside walls that they were forbidden, unable or expected never to leave, stretching back into history. To encounter the disabled out and about was to fear contagion.

Now, with contagion ubiquitous and invisible, everybody is inspiring that fear in everybody else. That, unfortunately yet hopefully, is just the interim normal. When it does give way, it will be up to all of us to reshape normalcy so that it really is the norm. These are all essential components of what the new normal for people with disabilities should become as the new normal for everyone takes shape in the wake of a less menacing viral environment. Actually, it looks like what the new normal for all should be.

It should be normal to be able to go anywhere; normal for students to access their textbooks, materials and classrooms; normal for people to be able to operate their desktop and mobile devices; normal to be able to access the internet and navigate the web; normal to visit museums and performance venues; normal to shop in-store or on-line; normal to go out to drink and dine; normal to travel; normal to find a rewarding job paying a living wage or to own a business; normal to rent or own a good home; normal to access good health care; normal to vote. In other words, to do all the normal things that normal people normally do, even encounter normal hassles and obstacles.

Most people with disabilities can list one by one the times they have encountered abnormal obstacles when trying to achieve each one of these normal goals. An abnormal obstacle is one that is peculiar to disability and other social and economic disadvantage, usually an expression of fear, low expectations or both. These typically include, among others: uninvited touching or pulling; inappropriate questions or comments; an insistence on providing assistance when none is needed; misguided instruction aimed at preventing entry; illegal physical barriers to entry; inaccessible technological barriers to participation.

We are constantly reminded that the virus does not discriminate. True, but society does. That is amply evident in the infection and death rates in cities, counties and states across the country.

The virus, like a radioactive dye injected into a body to identify diseased tissue, flows naturally toward and concentrates in the most damaged places in the social contract. It highlights with unflinching clarity how and why people of color, the poor and people with disabilities are all disproportionately feeling this newest, dispassionate aggressor. The disabled are rightly enraged and horrified by the looming shadow of eugenics hovering over emergency rooms and COVID-19 wards. The pandemic has been most devastating to virtually all disadvantaged communities, which already have been especially marked for the Potter’s Field – or just marked - as the virus blossomed.

Right now, propelled by a deadly change agent, the displacement of one way of life with a newly dangerous and precarious existence for all is spreading through daily living circumstances and unsettling communities. The sea of uncertainty that has risen along with these changes is compelling a rush to divine and define what will become the new normal once the greatest fears have receded.

The sweeping disruption caused by this contagion is delivering a mandate to reshape our national ethos and fulfill the Constitution’s promise of America as the model of social and economic justice it promises but is still so far from being. Or we can turn away and pretend not to know that America has been eating its own since long before the virus arrived. That is the old normal. Should it wither and die, its passing, unlike for the many, many thousands being lost to COVID-19, will be one to celebrate.

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