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COVID-19 shining a light on ableism

  • 25 August 2020

It is now fairly trite to talk about these ‘exceptional’ times in relation to COVID-19. Isolation, quarantine, mask-wearing, working from home have all become buzzwords. The disruption the pandemic has wrought in all of our lives has been immense. With disruption, however, has come a consciousness that many of the social structures and assumptions we have taken for granted for so long are not, in fact, graven in stone.

Others have pointed out how the pandemic has lit up the areas in which our neoliberal economies are basically unfit for the purpose of providing healthy and safe environments — whether it be privatised aged care homes and quarantine services or ‘the gig economy’, which forces sick people to ‘soldier on’ infecting people as they go. One area that has been rather less considered, however, is disability.

On the one hand, COVID-19 has been a scourge which has affected people with disabilities more than others. As the Disability Royal Commission has been hearing, group homes and ‘special’ schools have been afflicted with the same combination of malign neglect, no government planning and low wage workers as aged care facilities. As with older people, people with disabilities are often at higher risk from complications from COVID-19 and in need of the kind of close-up physical assistance which puts them and others at increased risk of contagion.

Coupled with this has been the damaging reporting on disability which often strikes an openly eugenicist tone. Warnings that economic lockdown will do more damage than the virus and demands for open borders often carry an implicit (indeed sometimes explicit) subtext that some will die for the good of the rest and that the ‘useless eaters’ (as the Nazis described us) should be sacrificed. Indeed, years before the pandemic struck, the former social services minister and the largest media empire in the country were on record as referring to money spent on people with disability as a ‘burden’.

On the flip-side, there is the undeniable fact that some things have become easier if you have a disability. I, for one, am glad that I do not have to take the train to work anymore and brave the inaccessible horror that is Flinders Street Station. No longer do I need to scurry from platform to platform trying to find out from bemused station-workers (who often know as much as I do) when/where/if the scheduled train is arriving.

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