A True Dilemma of “Social” and “Physical” Distancing

A collage of 5 pictures portraying social vs physical distancing including people with disabilities, corporate staff, young people and 2 individuals homebound

While social distancing is the new “buzz” word for COVID-19, let’s see it from the perspective of understanding “distancing” for people with disabilities.

The COVID-19 crisis is new. It is requiring us all to act, interact and communicate in different ways than we are used to. Social distancing is the term you hear whenever you tune into any media source. In the current context, “social distancing” is understood as being a “physical” distance from another person to help slow the spread of COVID-19 and the global-economic epidemic. However, the “social distancing” impact on persons with disabilities is not new.

The irony in all this is that “social distancing” has been around for years which has had an escalating impact on people with disabilities causing greater stigmatization to keep a distance and a social devaluing of this group within our society.

Before writing this article, I wanted to take my time to reflect and talk to individuals who have a visible and/or non-visible disability who have experienced true “social distancing”.

Here are their intimate thoughts, feelings, and experiences of living with a disability(ies):

  • Isolation
  • Lack of empathy and appreciation
  • Losing your job due to myths, stigma, and/or misconceptions
  • Difficult to access basic needs
  • Limited or total lack of independence
  • Lack of accommodation and/or accessibility in the workplace and/or community
  • Mobility restrictions
  • Non-accommodating public infrastructure
  • Financial strain
  • Huge cost for accessibility/assistive devices and/or equipment
  • Ongoing stress and fear of losing principle residence/home due to health (at no fault of your own)
  • Mandatory need for health medications and/or supplies
  • Being forgotten…amongst others.

Sound familiar?  This is currently the normalcy during this challenging time to avoid the spread of COVID-19 whereas a large population of people with disabilities encounter this daily.

For people with disabilities ranging from (a) physical limitation(s), blind or vision loss, deaf or hearing loss, cognitive, neurological, mental or a learning impairment, social distancing has been widely practiced for longer than you think. It is a mindset that can be turned on or off in society when it is suited due to stigma, myths, and/or misconceptions.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), over a billion people, about 15% of the world’s population, have some form of disability (WHO, 2018).[1]

With respect to COVID-19, people with invisible and visible disabilities are not only at increased risk of serious health complications but, they also have specific medical and support needs in this challenging period. These needs must be factored to any pandemic plan in order to adequately address the needs of all citizens when a pandemic outbreak occurs. Below is a video of the barriers people with disabilities are facing
and the calls for government help…

“At the best of times, social distancing is often either an inconvenience or an imposition on persons with a disability and this has only been made more evident at this time.” – Donna Jodhan, President of Barrier-free Canada

Social distancing is causing additional and exacerbated barriers and limitations for persons with disabilities.  This includes those who don’t have the funds for in-home internet or equipment to go online, no access to critical health information, limited physical abilities and don’t drive in attempt to shop for vital needs.  Those who have always relied on grocery delivery strategies due to physical limitations are now finding themselves at the back of very long line-ups.  People with disabilities can only hope that all levels of government recognize the dilemma and find ways to provide resources to obtain their necessities.

Did you know there are so many ways technology can be optimized to increase accessibility and inclusion for people with disabilities…which can be universal for anyone?  Many tools and features are even FREE. You have screen reader and text-to-speech tools, closed and audio captioning, web accessibility checkers, color contrast checkers, Microsoft accessibility features, social media features, amongst others.

Let’s begin to remove the societal barriers which were created prior to this pandemic. 

Government and society is looking toward individuals and industries alike to share innovative ideas, taking the initiative to help the less unfortunate, acknowledging people for their character, and taking the initiative to be a helping hand in any way they can to fight the COVID-19. 

People are finding ways to socially connect with friends, families and even strangers in many small ways to stay connected.  Communities and neighbours have begun to reach out and give a helping hand wherever and whenever they can. Organizations have begun to be more robust, adaptive, innovative, and gamechangers.

Employees who work on the frontline are being recognized like never before for their efforts, dedication, hours/time, and sacrifices, including healthcare workers, personal support workers, paramedics, police officers, the fire department, cashiers, janitors and maintenance workers, bus drivers, truck drivers, restaurant and food delivery workers, production workers, community centres for the homeless, individuals who work at women shelters, and call center representatives – which have been long overdue.

People with disabilities can add value and are more than happy to play a role of being a contributor. They must not be left behind.  Equal accommodation and accessibility, the opportunity to help make a difference, and the drive is all that matters.

Let’s not confuse “physical distancing” with “social distancing”.

Let’s continue to break the set boundaries.

And lastly, let’s take this as an experience and opportunity of changing mindsets, encourage inclusion, and continue being a supportive community and society by being genuinely true to others…

  1. Disability and Health Fact Sheet. World Health Organization 2018.

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