Prior to the pandemic, moving around as a visibly disabled pedestrian certainly had its difficulties, but I felt that improvements were being made. Campaigns such as Dr Amy Kavanaugh’s “Don’t Grab, Just Ask”, encouraging people to ask disabled people if they needed help instead of making assumptions that could easily lead to being put in harms way, were having a positive impact on how disabled people were treated in public. I was definitely having less people almost land in my lap when they didn’t look where they were going, being so engrossed in their phones while walking around that they didn’t spy me. I wasn’t having as many issues with drivers parking vehicles over dropped curbs or tradesmen blocking accessible routes, and people stepping out directly in front of the wheelchair forcing me into a sudden and painful stop were becoming less frequent. I could no longer assume that people would insist on speaking to my husband rather than myself, and people would be willing to move around me rather than forcing me to manoeuvre out of their way.
Then the pandemic hit.
Over the next couple of years, the public were in and out of lockdowns of varying degrees, confined to their homes for months at a time, wearing masks and socially distancing to protect those around them when out and about.
I actually went into the office during some of these lockdowns, and I won’t lie – my commute was significantly easier when I didn’t have to contend with the general public. It literally shaved several minutes off of my journey each way since I wasn’t having to make detours due to blocked routes, and it was a lot less stressful as I didn’t have to be constantly aware of every car, bike and person in my vicinity.
Gradually, bearing no relation to whether the coronavirus still presented a threat or not, “normality” resumed. Perhaps my comparisons are clouded by my experience as a pedestrian during lockdown, but in my opinion the treatment of disabled people in public seems to have become worse than before. My commute has returned to its original length (or longer) as I am forced to account for blocked accessible crossings and routes, and people certainly seem to be less attuned to the world around them. Even on the ten-minute journey out to the pub where I am currently writing, I was forced to swerve or halt suddenly on multiple occasions because people stepped into my path, and each time my presence was not acknowledged. Given that I had to use my wheelchair fairly consistently throughout the pandemic, I don’t think it’s just that my driving skills have gotten rusty, either. Whereas just prior to the pandemic I was slowly becoming visible to the public, it would seem that I, as a wheelchair user, have once again become invisible.
Admittedly, this is not exactly the worst consequence of the pandemic; I almost feel guilty for complaining. That said, it is frustrating that progress seems to have reversed in regards to disabled people moving around in public. I have to wonder whether this is an experience is shared by other wheelchair users, or even people with completely different disabilities. Perhaps, once the rather turbulent political climate has settled down, progress will continue to be made. For the sake of all those making the effort to raise awareness of these issues and to transform the public perception of disability, I hope so.
So, when you’re out and about, try to be mindful of those around you; avoid parking on pavements or over crossings, don’t step directly into the path of wheelchair users, and ask us if we need help instead of just grabbing/kidnapping us. Your effort will shine brighter now more than ever.