This will all be over, eventually. Life will return to whatever the new normal will be. Those of us tasked with working from home will return to the office. The cafes, restaurants and bars will reopen. The barbers will have queues of young lads outside waiting to get their first 'fade out' in weeks. Hotels will see families return and schools will welcome reluctant students for class once more.
But things will be different. There will be a reluctance to shake hands. A cough or a sneeze will be greeted with a cursory glance from those nearby. The hand sanitizers will surely remain outside supermarkets long after the plexiglass has come down. For many of us it is hard to see any positive impact the Covid-19 outbreak will have on this, the most social of nations. Suspicion, paranoia and a reluctance to touch will all be the new norm, for a while at least.
But there will be some positives to take from this extraordinary situation. The sense of national pride at the efforts of, not only our health care workers, but all of our Gardai, our firefighters, retail workers and all those who find themselves on the frontline during this pandemic. The self-imposed isolation and social distancing from the vast majority of Irish people. And the kindness extended to our children, parents, neighbours and friends.
But as someone whose role is primarily to increase awareness and understanding around disability, it has been disheartening to hear the same line repeated so often from those who should know better. The line comes in various guises but has the same message at its core…
“It's only the elderly and those with long term illness who are dying…”
“Another person died today. Ah sure, he had an underlying health condition...”
“A woman died today. But she was in and out of hospital apparently with an illness for the last few years anyway…”
People with disabilities and long term or underlying health conditions deserve greater respect from many of us. According to the 2016 census there were 643,141 people in Ireland with a disability or long-term health condition. This is the largest minority group in the country, a significant minority which includes 1 in 7 of us. Whether or not you are aware of it, your neighbour, work colleague, best friend or childminder may have a disability or an underlying health condition. They may be feeling especially vulnerable right now. By using language of such a dismissive nature, we cause undue upset, and further marginalisation at a time when we should be kinder and considerate.
In this writer's opinion, there may be relevance to informing the public about the nature of a person's condition, when it is done in the appropriate context. The fine lines between factual information and relevant context is being decided and balanced with care by those who inform us of the frightening numbers of infected and dead every evening.
This is not the issue which causes consternation. It is the dismissive nature of the remarks from many of us who speak to each other on What's App groups, on Zoom or in homes across the country. This language is what creates even more of an 'us and them' scenario. Many people with disabilities will tell you they have always been treated differently because of a perceived physical, intellectual, sensory or mental health impairment. Sadly, at a time when entire communities are pulling together, some have never felt so isolated.
We, as a nation, are now disabled. We face barriers which simply didn't exist two weeks ago.
The social model of disability states that a person is disabled by the way society is organised, rather than any physical, intellectual, sensory or mental health impairments they may have. It focuses on barriers which prevent inclusion for people and looks at how these barriers can be removed.
This model frames the world collectively and looks at the physical environment; the lack of accessible buildings, out of bounds public spaces and inaccessible transport. It considers inaccessible products and services. It looks at educational and training systems whose doors are shut to many. The healthcare and welfare systems quite often have barriers to entry, coupled with a lack funding leading to ineffective resources. Those who engage our health and welfare services may have to face long wait times as they wait for an appointment/decision/result. There are ever present issues with communication in various guises, for many.
This has the become the most accepted model used to describe disability over the last thirty years in Ireland.
Now that we are all disabled, and feeling especially vulnerable, maybe this time could be used to reflect on the largest minority group in Ireland who face similar problems every day of their lives to the ones most of us are facing during this pandemic. Maybe this time can be used to encourage people to pay closer attention to the issues faced by our friends, neighbours and colleagues with disabilities. Maybe a little more understanding and a lot more awareness of societal attitudes towards disability.
And let's consider the language we use, just a little more.