Rouzbeh Pirouz on Why accessibility for disabled people must remain after lockdown

Rouzbeh Pirouz is Co-Founder and Senior Partner at London-based Pelican Partners, a real estate and private equity investment firm. He has a strong interest in the rights of disabled people.

One thing that people who aren’t physically disabled simply don’t realise (for the most part) is the sheer length of time and fight involved in making any kind of accessibility progress.

More than 14 million people in the UK

are disabled in some way. Despite such high numbers, and despite decades of campaigning and awareness, every accessibility change achieved has been hard won. Now that pandemic lockdowns are changing and people are being encouraged to go back to work and resume life as before, what does this mean for accessibility?

How the pandemic has increased accessibility for disabled people
The disabled population is extremely diverse. But one thing unites everyone who lives with a physical or mental disability – accessibility. These can be physical accessibility needs, such as wheelchair access, but can also be many other less obvious needs.

In simple terms, accessibility needs refer to the adjustments or conditions needed by disabled people to participate in society equally. The harsh truth is that we all live in an ableist society, that is built, devised and developed to accommodate non-disabled people.

Many disabled people in the UK report feeling excluded from everyday life simply because of accessibility issues. And these are, of course, usually out of their control. This ongoing battle to access things that people without disabilties don’t even think about is mostly invisible to those outside of the community. From accessing education, jobs to being able to participate in leisure facilities, accessibility barriers are everywhere. However, COVID-19 forced change where otherwise it wouldn’t happen.

The shift to online gigs, education and work has benefitted disabled people
Let’s take going to a gig, for example. For disabled people with autism the crowded nature of attending live music would mean many couldn’t go. The combination of crowds and the inevitability of being forced into close contact would simply preclude their attendance.

In this Guardian article from 2019, a person with autism explained the difficulties inherent in going to gigs and suggested accessibility enhancements that could be made to accommodate them. At the time, the response was generally that these adjustments are not possible, that they’re unrealistic and that they would never happen.

Then COVID-19 came and stopped everyone attending gigs. This forced musicians and live acts to find ways to adapt, leading to virtual stand-up gigs, live music concerts and all kinds of performances. Perhaps the most inclusive way possible to offer performance art, these virtual performances allow everyone who has an Internet connection to participate and attend.

For people without disabilities, this might seem an unsatisfactory and temporary way to enjoy gigs. But for disabled people with accessibility challenges, this increased accessibility in one fell swoop mitigates all kinds of problems. From whether their wheelchair will fit into a venue to accessing assistance of all kinds, virtual gigs are fully accessible.

And for the first time in more than a century since the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1917, disabled people weren’t the only ones restricted from accessing everyday pleasures, such as the pub or a gig. In other words, COVID-19 has, to some extent, levelled the playing field between non-disabled people and disabled people.

COVID-19 also shows massive inequalities in the UK
However, COVID-19 has also thrown a sharp spotlight on a raft of other inequalities between disabled people and non-disabled people. For example, disabled people constitute 60% of all COVID linked deaths in England, despite the fact that disabled people are a minority of the overall population.

And, of course, none of these accidental moves towards greater accessibility during the pandemic were made for disabled people. The leaps in adapting to technological solutions were made because it became unthinkable that the entire population would have no access to various services. Better accessibility for disabled people was therefore a by-product of an enormous leap in changing access for a population demanding protection from a virus.

So, what does this tell us? It tells us that making a world accessible is totally possible if the will to do it is there. It also tells us that the world at large doesn’t consider disabled people enough of an impetus to improve accessibility in normal times. For years, disabled people have been told that increasing accessibility is just not possible, not viable, not within our grasp. And it’s just not true.

Furthermore, now that the UK is beginning to clamber out of the restrictions imposed by the pandemic, I’m concerned that the raft of online alternatives will be dispensed with. If, when things are back to ‘normal’, online access simply disappears along with the fear of the virus then disabled people will once again be worse off.

What happens for disabled people when lockdown is lifted?
If we think about disabled people who have begun jobs or education courses during lockdown because a whole new world was opened up to them, what happens if acceptance of online work and study is removed. This could have enormously negative consequences for disabled people of all ages, and particularly for those who moved into education and jobs for the first-time during lockdown.

For example, a disabled person may have landed their first job in the career of their choice simply because a company was operating a remote work policy during the pandemic. What happens when the pandemic is over? While I’d like to assume that companies will continue to work in this way as apar of a distributed work model offering accessibility to all, I’m not sure whether that will happen. And it certainly won’t happen across the board.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that all disabled people want to work remotely. Many will be happy to go back to a physical workplace or hold a job that demands face to face contact. But there are also many who find working in an office, commuting to an office and dealing with accessibility issues really difficult and have found it easier to pursue their job during lockdown.

We don’t yet know exactly when workplaces will fully reopen. We don’t know whether all workplaces will revert to how it was before, or whether they will continue to offer a mix of in person and remote working. However, there has already been discussion surrounding how to make it less attractive to work from home. Some employers are embracing remote working long term. For example, Segro recently announced its new Agile Work Policy that aims to give employees the choice of whether they work in-house or remotely.

I hope we see more employers shifting to a permanent policy of remote working, but this shouldn’t be left down to individual businesses. Instead, there should be centralised support from the Government for disabled people. There must be pressure on businesses to take a long-term inclusive stance by implementing long-term flexible work options.

History shows us that any progress made in accessibility for disabled people cannot be taken for granted. As the UK emerges from lockdown for hopefully the last time, it’s essential that there is widespread support for the disabled community in terms of retaining the accidental accessibility the pandemic has brought to their world.