Accommodation v Inclusion

February 17, 2023

First published in the winter 2023 issue of
Breath & Shadow

One aspect of the pandemic made life more accessible for those whose disabilities limit our ability to participate in cultural, educational, and employment opportunities. People with disabilities as well as those who are immunocompromised, parents who can't afford childcare, folks for whom traveling outside their neighborhoods or after dark endangers them, people whose access to transportation ends early because buses stop running on certain routes, individuals who just can't spare the hours required to get from their home to an event or meeting location and back, and other groups benefited from the measures taken once the magnitude of Covid-19 became apparent in the U.S.

As events transitioned to virtual-only in 2020, many of those groups suddenly had access to concerts, art exhibitions, readings, classes, dance performances, plays, movies, and the ability to participate in decision making by their local and state governments. Disabled journalists could cover events -- including regulatory and legislative panels, hearings, and voting; press conferences; and court inquiries, trials, and other proceedings -- without travel cost in time, money, and/or spoons.

For two years, people with disabilities and other restrictions weren't just being accommodated, we were included.

Those events didn't switch to virtual because new technology and tools suddenly became available. The tools have been available for decades. In 1998, as Communications Manager for a Council of Governments, I coordinated venue logistics for a day-long program with 13 speakers. We used audio-visual equipment to mitigate a room design that would have prevented everyone from seeing and hearing the presentation. The only accommodations missing were an ASL interpreter, an internet connection, and a site to host streaming. The pandemic merely forced governments, individuals, and organizations to use what's already available; they could no longer exclude people with disabilities and other limitations without excluding everyone else.

The pandemic is far from over. More than 1.13 million people are dead in the U.S. alone. Hundreds more die every day. Tens of millions of children have lost a parent or other caregiver including teachers, childcare workers, and family members. An estimated 56 million U.S. residents potentially face permanent disability from Long Covid, more than 7.5 percent of the population. Transmission and case numbers are going up, although no government entity is accurately reporting the increases.

Despite this devastating reality, privileged people who saw inclusion of those with fewer advantages as an inconvenience are actively working to take unprecedented accessibility away from those for whom it opened up income opportunities, advancement possibilities, cultural windows, and more. Instead of utilizing systems established during the pandemic, many believe that because meeting in person is an option again, participation of those unable to attend should no longer be considered in logistical planning.

While giving lip service to accommodating those unable to attend in-person events -- whether because of the pandemic or previously existing restrictions -- priority has shifted to alleviating Zoom fatigue. In reality, allowing in-person events does not preclude offering interactive video and audio options to all who need or want them. However, offering online options requires some cost regarding staffing and, depending on the venue, additional equipment.

All levels of government in the U.S. -- once it was documented that the pandemic disproportionately impacts those already marginalized -- have made it very clear that they give more weight to the prosperity of corporations than the lives of residents. This is exemplified by Rochelle P. Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, applauding a disease that she erroneously stated only kills those with pre-existing conditions and disabilities. Most public officials have completely abandoned mitigation attempts. Given that, it's not surprising that few organizations will make the effort or expend funds to maintain inclusivity.

Those of us who are marginalized and familiar with history are only too aware that a strong contingent of people in the U.S. fights to return this country to the days of its founding when the freedom to pursue life, liberty, and happiness was extended only to property-owning white males. That contingent works diligently to eliminate any additional rights fought for since the Constitution was written by those the original documents excluded: Black, Indigenous, Latiné, Asian, immigrant, landless, etc. men; women of all skin colors and ethnicities; and people who aren't heterosexual, cis-gendered, heteronormative, and/or abled.

As in all genocidal, supremacist projects, rights are being stripped from the most vulnerable first. They almost always start with racialized, queer, and disabled people, often including those disabled as a result of epidemics and pandemics. Nationalists and supremacists begin eliminating human rights strategically, with exclusion of oppressed people from voting, jobs, healthcare, and exercising their Constitutional rights. They also accelerate the exclusion of marginalized children from school, meals, sports, and access to books and information. These exclusions are often presented in ways designed to seem innocuous to those who are not impacted and choose to remain oblivious to the suffering of others.

Today, those actively working to exclude disadvantaged populations from continued participation have myriad justifications for why full inclusion isn't possible. In doing so, they deliberately ignore how pandemic protocols eliminated many of those excuses. As events migrate away from online-only, rather than embracing hybrid options some organizations are working to further ostracize marginalized populations. Many are eliminating everything but in-person events; they won't even make video recordings available to consume at a later time.

Offering events with an option for real-time online access is fully inclusive; providing recordings so people can watch later is the bare minimum accommodation. Providing neither option is irrefutably exclusionary. With millions of people newly disabled and more whose medical conditions preclude any exposure to Covid-19, hMPXV, polio, measles, etc., at a minimum events should be recorded and made available online.

Inclusive planning may require significant effort and resources on the part of event organizers, but it's technically very possible. I regularly participate in hybrid meetings via computer. I also have access to much more, including conferences with hundreds of attendees and numerous learning and networking opportunities all designed to include everyone.

While many people suffered from isolation brought about by pandemic protocols, others suddenly had access to entire worlds that once excluded them. Those who benefited from the ability to participate in once inaccessible events will not willingly forfeit the opportunities offered. It behooves planners to take into account accommodating those unable to attend events in person, especially as this group grows larger with millions disabled by Long Covid. Doing so not only reduces the possibility of ADA complaints, it also increases the pool of those available to contribute to their events' goals.

For months, many institutions willingly employed the tools necessary to make events accessible to anyone who wanted to participate in them. There is no reason, except deliberate, systemic exclusion, to stop using those tools. Claims that the cost of accessibility is prohibitive or that they lack resources further demonstrates how little event organizers for governments and larger organizations care about listening to and including those with disabilities.

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