by Bob Goldstraw
“Only the vulnerable will be at risk. Your ‘only’ is my everything.” That was the last post that April Dunn put on her Facebook page. A fierce advocate for the rights of people with disabilities in Louisiana, Ms. Dunn died from complications of COVID-19 on March 28 at age 33. She was a senior coordinator in the Governor’s Office of Disability Affairs. Born with fetal alcohol syndrome and cerebral palsy, Ms. Dunn knew well that while not all people with disabilities are at greater risk for complications or death from COVID-19, she was among the many who were.
Unfortunately, Governor Edwards didn’t get to benefit from the thoughtful guidance that April Dunn would have no doubt provided him as he developed his plans to reopen Louisiana. It’s certainly reasonable (and smart) to include those so disproportionately affected by this pandemic in developing and implementing these phased plans. And as states and communities around the country begin to return to some new version of “normal”, the mantra “Nothing About Us Without Us” remains as relevant as ever. Getting input from the disability community must not be an afterthought, considering that their guidance will inevitably form the cornerstone of any effective, safe plan that benefits everyone, disabled or not.
Like the city I’ve called home for the past 25 years, Washington, DC, many other jurisdictions have developed reopening plans around three stages or phases. In the process of developing its plans (as I write this we’re still in Phase Two), DC Government reached out to a broad range of stakeholders, including the city’s 80,000 residents with disabilities and those who advocate on their behalf.
But not all jurisdictions are actively seeking to include people with disabilities in this process. What does your state, city, or county stand to lose or otherwise get wrong by not including people with disabilities in this planning? The short answer is a lot. We are now uniquely positioned to help our cities or towns reinvent themselves by planning for success and accessibility. We can reopen in a way that makes them smarter, safer, and more inclusive. Three decades after the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act into law, people with disabilities continue to exercise their resourcefulness and resilience. They come up with novel ways around barriers, both physical and attitudinal, which in 2020, shouldn’t be there in the first place. Their uniquely creative problem-solving skills must be made use of in developing every jurisdiction’s pandemic reopening plan.
As Alice Wong stated in a recent interview, “…my hope for coming out of this pandemic is that we don’t return to the status quo. Many don’t realize that ‘normal’ was actually not great for a lot of people. Just because all of the nondisabled people go back to work—or to Burning Man, or to Coachella—that doesn’t mean we should stop thinking about accessibility.”
And so, as schools, restaurants, government offices and businesses around the country are reconfigured and begin their phased re-openings, local governments need to seek out and heed the input of people with disabilities. In doing so, these communities will implement a smarter, inclusive reopening process that takes into account everyone’s needs.
Communities will succeed by working to shrink the digital divide while ensuring that telework as a job accommodation and telemedicine are widely available. Communities will succeed by ensuring that the technology used is accessible to people who are deaf, hard of hearing, blind, or low vision. Communities will succeed by ensuring that public transportation, on-demand rail and paratransit systems are operating efficiently. Schools and students will succeed by making sure that Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) are given a second look, as many kids have lost out on critical class time and supportive services during months of school closures. We will all succeed by reopening in a way that doesn’t put those at most risk for serious illness or death due to COVID-19 in greater danger. And we all succeed when we communicate and implement all of this in ways that are accessible to everyone, including people who are deaf or hard of hearing, people who are blind or low vision, and people with developmental and other disabilities.
We have a unique opportunity to reinvent how we run our states, cities, and communities and how we communicate with our residents. I hope our local government officials are enlightened enough to recognize that for many, social distancing has been a luxury. Leaders need to aggressively seek out the wise guidance of people with disabilities as they plan and implement this new “normal” in a way that benefits everyone, without excluding anyone.
Links to articles referenced
About the author
Bob Goldstraw is a writer, editor and disability policy and communications consultant. He served on the staff of the former Presidential Task Force on Employment of Adults with disabilities under President Bill Clinton, and for more than a decade, held the role of web content manager for the former federal website, Disability.gov. Bob is a member of the National Disability Mentoring Coalition and is also a patient-family advisor to Ascension Health, the largest Catholic nonprofit healthcare system in the United States. He lives in Washington, DC with his husband of 25 years.
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