With the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act approaching, it is important to reflect on how this pandemic has affected the independence and rights of people with disabilities, and the importance of advocacy to make freedom ring through continued accessibility of basic necessities.
To learn about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on people who are blind or visually impaired, the American Printing House for the Blind and 14 other vision-related U.S. organizations and companies, carried out the “Flatten Inaccessibility” survey. The survey included queries about how critical areas of life were affected by the Coronavirus. It was divided into several sections, among them technology, transportation, healthcare, social experiences, and access to food and supplies.
- Access to transportation. Many bus routes were closed or changed. Bus pick up points changed. Paratransit options were reduced. Rideshare companies such as Uber and Lyft lost drivers and scrambled to set up guidelines for safety for passengers and drivers. Some transit authorities required access to buses from the the rear entrance, which was difficult for many riders. As one respondent put it, “I no longer feel like a full citizen because of this transportation situation. It’s already been very hard to adjust to having to take public transportation everywhere or walk because of my disability and now that transportation is being cut first for paratransit and then for regular bus routes and rail just confirms that…at this time in my life I (may be) shut out of transportation once this pandemic is settled for everyone else…”
- Access to information. Many of the transit changes were not communicated to riders who were unable to access print. Touchscreens are hard or impossible to use. Many websites, such as grocery delivery services, are not totally accessible. One participant stated, “Web guidelines need to be 100%….(accessible). We have the ability, now IT needs the training so they cannot argue ‘they didn’t know’ about web and other accessibility. Video and print MUST become as accessible as services to the deaf are by law. It could be a matter of life and death.”
- Access to food, supplies, medication. With limits on transportation and delivery services, obtaining these necessities became almost impossible at times.
One respondent said, “…sometimes I may fall through the cracks when getting food or shopping when someone cannot just be right there, and I must now plan different[ly].”
Another stated, “We are concerned that the new ‘contactless’ delivery will make it difficult for us to get food, that people will leave food items in front of our condo building without communicating with us. We text or inform them in the app we are blind, but it is a touch and go situation whether the services understand or not. Our independence is threatened due to the lack of transportation and delivery services.”
- Access to assistance for grocery shopping and way finding. As one person put it, “It is difficult to get assistance to get to the store in order to do shopping and other essentials.” Another said, “My local transit agency currently has a policy that drivers are not to physically assist passengers, except to secure mobility devices….I require human guide to and from the vehicle.”
- Fear on the part of people with vision loss and the public. Because people with vision loss need to touch surfaces for a variety of reasons, fear of the virus has made it difficult to go out. One person stated, “As a person who is blind, I am more likely to touch commonly used surfaces and feel that this along with my MS puts me at an increased risk of potential exposure.” There is increased fear of guide dogs, as this person attests, “I was getting denials with my guide dog before this started, and now I know I can’t take my dog because the law doesn’t matter. I’ve never felt so isolated.”
- Access to COVID testing and other medical help. A respondent agonized, “(I am) a little afraid to have to use the Ride or Lyft if I have to see a doctor as there’s no way to really social distance & I would be fearful to ask a driver to take me to get a test for fear that i may put them at risk if I am infected.” Another person stated, “Relying on family members is not feasible. I am concerned about the availability of getting to a testing site.”
What Can Be Done?
The ADA was not built in a day. As VisionAware peer advisor Elizabeth Sammons states in her article about the ADA in Context, “many events occurred far before the ADA, winds of change which swept the way for 1990…the 1960s and 1970s brought about far greater awareness of the disability community as a political movement and a force to be reckoned with. Under the new civil rights model, disability no longer signified an individual’s medical infirmity, but rather, it began to challenge an entire social and cultural construct.”
How do we overcome the concerns expressed by this respondent? “Unfortunately, those that manage all types of rideshare systems (i.e. transit, UBER/LYFT, Taxi, etc.) have ability to drive themselves and do not ask for input from those requiring transport.”
- Start with awareness of existing legislation. For example, Title III of the ADA addresses access, such as construction and informational barriers, as well as transportation. Exclusion, segregation, and unequal treatment are prohibited.
- People who are blind or visually impaired should find out about and attend transit advisory committees, planning commission meetings, city council and county commission meetings. Seek a position on advisory committees. Speak out. Vote.
- Get involved with consumer groups such as the American Council of the Blind and the National Federation of the Blind. These organizations advocate on a local, state, and national level.
- Learn to use technology so that you can stay connected, informed, use multiple forms of transportation, and gain access to needed supplies, and participate fully in today’s world. This pandemic has made it clear that learning to use technology is a critical life skill for people of all ages with visual impairments.
In summary, it is imperative that people with vision loss speak up; you must advocate to be at the table when planning takes place and decisions are made. Educate yourself about the law and its provisions. Insist that planners think ahead and plan for emergencies and pandemics to effectively address the needs of people with disabilities. As shown in the survey, these are truly life and death decisions.