Leadership & People
Opinion Article
December 22, 2020

What if self-isolation was your only option in a post covid-19 world?

The World is adapting to a life where social distancing and self-isolating will likely be the norm for an unknown period, where we find ourselves searching for ways to stay connected and battle loneliness. But what if this was your reality pre-Covid-19 and equally your expectation for a post-Covid19 life? Many disabled people live in social exclusion, whether self-imposed or as a result of our society’s failure to provide true equal access to services,content, facilities, etc. to all, offline and online. Can Covid-19 – in all its challenges and heartbreak – provide an opportunity for us to reflect on how to build a truly inclusive tomorrow also for people who experience some form of disability? Can we collectively afford to standby and accept the continued social exclusion of one billion people (yes, one billion!), roughly 15% of the world’s population? (1) The fact that a large portion of the disabled population is not active in the job market – even though most could certainly be – is no doubt a major contributor to loneliness and isolation. And – I would add – an enabler for slower change where it is critically necessary like improvement of transport and general infrastructure accessibility, which is essential to mobility, as is a change in perception of the actual capabilities of the disabled population. For instance, in the Portuguese private sector there was a 48% increase of disabled employees in companies with more than 10 workers between 2012 and 2017, and even then, disabled people only represented 0.52% of the workforce (2017) (2) – this is less than 1% of the private sector workforce in the entire country. We can certainly do better. Loneliness and mental health have become a hot topic for discussion as a result of confinement measures across the globe – between March 15 and 21 “solitude” peaked as a topic on google search engine trends (3) . As a result, we have now started to collectively grasp the detrimental consequences that loneliness has over one’s health. “(L)oneliness can wreak havoc on an individual’s physical, mental and cognitive health.” And, there is “(…) evidence linking perceived social isolation with adverse health consequences including depression, poor sleep quality, impaired executive function, accelerated cognitive decline, poor cardiovascular function and impaired immunity at every stage of life”4. Imagine that every time you were to leave your home and attempt a social outing to fight loneliness you had to deal with a number of barriers which in turn caused you even more stress than the prospect of self-isolating in an environment you know and (hopefully) consider safe such as your home. And now imagine as well that this was not just an issue during the Covid-19 pandemic and rather your reality 24/7. In the UK, a study found that 85% of young disabled adults, aged 18 to 34, feel lonely and “almost half of working-age disabled people (…) are chronically lonely” (5) .

 

Should we not take this opportunity to collectively increase our empathy towards those who for one reason or another often conform to self-isolation because we have failed to provide conditions, both physical and social, that could otherwise enable a different, richer existence for us all? Have you ever wondered what are we losing as a result of those missed social interactions with such a diverse group of people within itself? How much more open minded and innovative would we be in different circumstances?According to a study conducted by the Boston Consulting Group and the Technical University of Munich in 2016, “innovation revenue— (…) define(d) as the share of revenues from new products and services in the most recent three-year period—rises with diversity” (6) . Even though this study did not analyse disability as a diversity type (only industry background, country of origin, career path, gender, age and academic background were analysed), a case can certainly be made that the same reasoning would apply to adding disabled people to the “mix”. Did you know that text messaging (SMS) was originally meant as a communication tool for deaf people? Texting seems to have come to stay in the way we connect with each other. Remote controls and audio books were also originally developed for people with some form of disability – as futile as it seems, I still remember life before remote controls, do you? What role can we play in contributing to a more inclusive society for disabled people? We can all act as change makers to remove barriers where these exist,both offline and online. And, although technological development will play a big role in breaking those barriers, differences in the material, cultural and cognitive resources required to make good use of information and communication technology still exist. (7) So, this is the challenge I leave you with:starting now, in whatever it is that you do ask yourself how can I ensure that this initiative is truly inclusive? And remember, better accessibility for disabled people more often than not means better accessibility for the elderly,anyone having to push a baby stroller around, etc.

 

What can I do? – you ask. Good policies are needed yet I believe that we all can accelerate change. Design (thinking included) is certainly key (watch TED talk “When we design for disability, we all benefit”by Elise Roy), as are flexibility and adaptation. If we all push for inclusion then perhaps the collective will to shift things in the right direction may give reluctant policymakers the nudge needed. Here are things we can all do:

  • if you are designing a website, implement the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG);
  • if you are posting a video online, make sure to include subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing (there are really easy to use tools online on Youtube, for example) or, if the video contains solely images, make available a text alternative with a description of the video content for the blind and partially sighted to access it through software on their own devices;
  • if you are delivering a webinar, ask your community if anyone needs assistance to access it and make an effort to find the technical tool (and there are many out there!) to ensure that everyone who is interested can access the content;
  • if you are designing an education programme,make sure that there is sufficient support in your institution to allow access and support for disabled people from the application process, to class content and train your staff on how to provide for the special needs. And, don’t forget to ensure easy physical access to the class room, library, toilets, cafeteria,student services when on campus or use accessible software when going online;
  • if you are an employer, ensure that your website(see above) and facilities are accessible and these won’t prevent someone with a disability from knowing about an open position or applying to it out of fear of embarrassment if they are not able to access the building or the receptionist is not trained to interact with a blind person, for example;
  • if you provide services to the public, make sure you are prepared to not only provide access to differently disabled people, and also provide appropriate training to your staff so that they know how to answer questions in regards to accessibility of services online, over the phone and onsite;
  • if you are a public entity, you can collect data and conduct surveys to understand what the barriers for disabled people are to access services/goods, etc. and take action to remove those directly or by coordinating with concerned parties;
  • if you are a citizen, advocate for inclusive public transport, tactile pavements (to name an example) and demand a more responsible behaviour from everyone, making sure that all vehicles (two wheels included) are correctly parked – can you imagine being blind or partially sighted and having to navigate a sidewalk filled with obstacles that are not supposed to be there?

 

The list could go on. Bottom line, we all can do better whether on our own or acting together (there is power in numbers) towards a more inclusive society and a more equitable economy. Imagine if this substantial part of the population (15% globally!) could live full and autonomous lives, with all the professional and social interaction that we are so badly craving and deserving in social distancing, rather than simply subsidizing disabled people with a charity minded approach (which will always be necessary to a certain extent to correct inequities), whilst leaving them little choice but to socially isolate, pandemic or no pandemic. It is not only the humane and right thing to do – there are many binding legal diplomas internationally and in Portugal that say so (8) –, it is also good economics!

 

This is what Integrated Dreams – a non-profit organisation based in Lisbon – is trying to do through the Football For All Leadership Programme (FFALP), designed to promote employability, entrepreneurship and networking of disabled people in the sports industry. We bridge our participants with the industry and support the development of entrepreneurial projects linking sport and disability with the help of our incredible international and national partners such as the Portuguese Football Association and Nova SBE to name a few. With only two Editions to date, the FFALP has assisted 31 participants from 14 countries in Africa, America and Europe, in their pursuit of a dream job in sport. 76,9% of them are working in sport related roles/organisations and have collectively designed and developed 29 projects in fields such as sport development, development through sport,improvement of sport facility accessibility, and development of platforms to promote inclusion in sport.

 

We strongly believe that we all can and must do better. We all have a role to play.

References

(1) www.worldbank.org/en/topic/disability

(2) “Pessoas comDeficiência em Portugal - Indicadores de Direitos Humanos 2019”, Observatórioda Deficiência e Direitos Humanos avalia impacto da Convenção sobre os Direitosdas Pessoas com Deficiência em Portugal (report in Portuguese available here).

(3) https://trends.google.com/trends/explore?q=%2Fm%2F03tr7f

(4) https://www.apa.org/monitor/2019/05/ce-corner-isolation

(5) https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/09687599.2018.1459228

(6) https://www.bcg.com/publications/2017/people-organization-leadership-talent-innovation-throughdiversity-mix-that-matters.aspx

(7) “OECD (2015), “Inequalities in Digital Proficiency:Bridging the Divide”, in Students, Computers and Learning: Making theConnection, OECD Publishing, Paris” (available here)

(8) Article 71 of the Constitution of the PortugueseRepublic, Law no. 38/2004 on establishing a Framework for prevention,qualification, rehabilitation and participation of disabled people, the UNConvention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, amongst others

Joana Cal

Joana Cal

Joana Cal is in charge of Operations at Integrated Dreams across the organisations' initiatives.

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