COVID-19 has undoubtedly had several negative impacts on all of our lives, however for disabled people the pandemic has only acted as a catalyst to expose the normalised ableism that is so prevalent in society today. Ableism is discrimination in favour of able-bodied people, resulting in people with disabilities often being overlooked and ignored in society. COVID has exposed systematic ableism, yet still society is choosing to ignore this important social justice issue.
The most obvious way in which the pandemic has impacted all people is the requirement to stay at home: to work, socialise, and study online for several months. As soon as the Government closed places of work and education in March, the nation was rapid to respond by moving our lives online in order to accommodate everybody. Disabled people have been asking for these considerations for years. Many schools and offices were required to switch over to remote work last March, however these same companies and places of education previously told disabled people it would be impossible for them to work remotely. Having online lessons and lectures was simply too much effort for educators to provide for people with chronic illnesses and disabilities. However, they can now be provided at the drop of a hat for healthy, able-bodied students to allow them to continue to work and study.
The pandemic has created more equal opportunities for many who previously struggled to access education.
Of course, this sudden change was not easy for any teacher or student, however as soon as it became necessary for able students, teachers proved that this system could in fact work with a bit of effort. Effort that only abled bodied, healthy people are apparently entitled to. This shift of having to stay at home is temporary for most, but may be permanent for some, which must not be forgotten once this pandemic is over.
Another example of systematic ableism is the Government’s original idea of “herd immunity”. Herd immunity is the concept of allowing a large portion of the public to be exposed to the COVID-19, in the hope that spreading it among low risk individuals would result in a large percentage of the population being immune. Ex-scientific adviser David King has stated that Boris Johnson was an advocate for this at the beginning of the pandemic. This approach does, however, completely ignore the elderly and the millions of people with underlying health conditions whose lives would be seriously threatened in the process of spreading the virus for herd immunity. This is a classic neo-liberal approach of attempting to keep the majority of people safe and well, without thinking of the population as a whole. It is no surprise that ableism is traditionally routed in our society when our own Prime Minister has shown ignorance by proposing such an idea. Boris Johnson backed down once the World Health Organisation raised the potentially devastating outcomes of this approach, however there are many other ways in which the Government have strengthened systematic ableism throughout the pandemic.
The Coronavirus Act removes disabled people’s hard-fought-for rights to social care through attacking their civil liberties and eroding their right to support. The Act suspends every duty necessary in the Care Act of 2014, stating that local authorities should intervene “only if they consider it necessary”, in order to avoid a breach of the European Convention of Human Rights. Furthermore, the Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson, may be able to remove the responsibility of schools to admit a child to a school where they are named on an Education, Health, and Care Plan. In other words, he has the power to vary the provisions of the Act which could put the rights of vulnerable young people in jeopardy. No other group of people had their rights removed in the act.
In conclusion, ableism itself is a metaphorical virus which has always plagued society, but has been emphasised and brought to light by the COVID pandemic. This is an incredibly challenging time for us all, but now more than ever it is so important that disabled and vulnerable people are not left behind. COVID has allowed us to reflect on the social justice issues in society - let’s be the generation that demands change.