HELEN JONES of the York Disability Rights Forum gives her perspective on life in lockdown

THERE can be no doubt that the pandemic has been brutal, and its impact has been felt heavily within the disability community in terms of lockdown, shielding and disproportionate deaths.

However, there have been some positive aspects. I don’t want to say a silver lining as I don’t think there can be such a thing when so many people have suffered, and continue to suffer, around the world.

But suddenly it seemed the world discovered the powers of the internet!  Working at home became the norm, talks and workshops went online, families who were scattered across the country met up on Zoom and YouTube pub quizzes suddenly became run of the mill. 

This has been amazing for many disabled people who, for a multitude of reasons have not had the same access to these in the ‘real world’.

There are the obvious barriers such as the pub that has no step free access but there are others that are harder to see at first glance.  People who are affected by fatigue and whose energy doesn’t allow them to go out, or go out for long, often use up what energy they have getting to the venue.  Those of us who have carers are often limited to going out when they can accompany us and may need to prioritise that time to go the supermarket rather than an evening at the theatre.

Then there's a lack of information about venue accessibility, being limited to the availability of wheelchair taxis or bus timetables and people’s attitudes if we do make it out.

As the world went online, I was able to attend talks and workshops, I did quizzes and crosswords with friends, and I’ve even made it to conferences which would have been impossible without the internet.  Plays were made available online, the latest cinema releases moved over to streaming channels and art galleries were offering virtual tours!

And if it wasn’t for having internet access, I wouldn’t have been able to join the York Disability Rights Forum Steering Group.  We’ve been able to use the internet to ‘meet’ and work together. 

As coronavirus itself has had such an impact on the disability community, it’s been really important to come together.  Further, changes to things such as Blue Badge parking are directly affecting disabled people and it has been through the internet we have been able to raise these concerns and have our voices heard.

However, I also know I’m incredibly lucky.  I have access to the internet, I have the equipment I need to do so and I have the knowledge to navigate the world wide web.  But many people don’t, and many of those people who don’t are disabled. 

According to the Office of National Statistics, of the people who don’t use the internet, 47.7 per cent of them have a long term illness, disability or infirmity, and 22 per cent of disabled adults have never used the internet compared to nine per cent of the adult population as a whole. 

This is clearly a huge over-representation of disabled people and there are a number of factors that contribute to this inequality.

Being online doesn’t come cheap. You have to buy the equipment, there’s the wifi or phone data bills and then you might need to add the cost of a screen reader or voice recognition software.  You may also need specific training on how to use these and there’s the trial and error of finding what assistive technology is right for you.  Further, inaccessible web pages, forms and apps can turn the internet into an unfriendly, unwelcoming place that requires significant effort to engage with.  Even commonplace technology such as smartphones can be rendered unusable for people with poor motor skills if there’s no accessibility functionality.

As I noted, I am one of the lucky ones; I’ve had internet access for years now and in turn that’s helped me connect with other disabled people, including people who have the same condition as I do, and so we’ve been able to share advice, tips and commiserate with each other. 

It is because of the internet that I have been able to join the York Disability Rights Forum Steering Group.

So, while those family Zoom chats might get overwhelming and you might be tempted to pretend to freeze and lose signal, keep in mind that not everyone has that opportunity.

When we eventually move out of the pandemic, I hope that ‘real life’ events and activities will include an online counterpart. 

While the internet allowed the Forum to get started during lockdown, we are fully aware that it is not an inclusive way of working and are committed to ensuring all disabled people who live or work in York are able to get involved.  As such, we hope we can model a blended way of working going forward.

If you want to get involved please get in touch with us by emailing yorkdisabilityrights@gmail.com.  Please note, we are currently working on our offline contact route.