Zoomkwondo and other lessons from the pandemic

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Early last year, when the world was turned on its head, I was amazed by the speed with which people found new ways of doing almost everything. In the blink of an eye, schools and universities moved online, as did workplaces, doctor’s surgeries, psychology practices, yoga studios, bookclubs, and family gatherings. Even my taekwondo club moved online. Indeed, to combat the isolation and weirdness of the pandemic, we met even more frequently via Zoom for classes that we nicknamed ‘Zoomkwondo’. These adjustments weren’t easy for everyone, or even ideal, but the sheer creativity and innovation that everyone displayed in finding ways to make things work was incredible.

Main image: Woman using a wheelchair to sit at home office (Getty Images)

For many people, however, this mass display of flexibility and adaptability was bittersweet. About 1 in 6 Australians (18 per cent) live with disability, and many of these 4.4 million people face daily barriers to their full inclusion in education, work, services, activities, etc, not because of their disability, but because access has been structured around the needs, capacities and preferences of people who do not live with disability. Exclusion has always been a choice, but the pandemic has laid this reality bare.

Under discrimination law, including the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (Cth), a failure to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to support the full inclusion of a person with disability is defined as unlawful discrimination. Theoretically, there is a fairly high bar for considering such adjustments ‘unreasonable’ — in that they would need to impose an ‘unjustifiable hardship’ on the person being asked to make them. However, discrimination law is not self-executing.

If you’ve ever tried to request a reasonable adjustment, you’ll be keenly aware of the fact that a person (or organisation) can very easily obfuscate, delay or subtly refuse your request in ways that are difficult to pin down, let alone challenge. And this doesn’t even deal with the fact that making a formal complaint is a highly unappealing option for most people. Not only does such a process cost you time, money and energy, but it is fraught with risk — the risk of an unsuccessful outcome and, perhaps more significantly, the risk of damaging relationships (some of which you may rely on for inclusion within the community).

A 2018 Report on ‘Improving Educational Outcomes for Children with Disability in Victoria’ by Castan Centre for Human Rights, for example, found that children were being turned away from government schools in informal ways, such as ‘school leaders discouraging parents from seeking enrolment for their child, on the basis that the school isn’t the right “fit” for the student, or can’t accommodate the student’s needs.’ Interviewees also reported that inclusion was particularly ‘impacted by the failure of their school to make appropriate adjustments, or to implement adjustments effectively.’ Incredibly, no one reported having made a formal complaint of any kind — instead all of these issues had been handled through informal (and often unsatisfactory) discussions.

By and large, this tendency to avoid making necessary adjustments to support the full inclusion of persons with disability is not due to an overt desire to exclude anyone. Instead, it is mostly driven by the perception that such adjustments are just too difficult and, let’s be honest, that it just isn’t enough of a priority. Could our experience of this pandemic perhaps trigger a change to this thinking — both by demonstrating how capable we really are of making adjustments; and by providing the opportunity for everyone to have a tiny sliver of insight into the significance of inclusion?

 

'The most important thing that we could do in this respect would be to actually listen to people with disabilities, who already know what they need and have, in fact, been sharing their expertise for a long time now.'

 

During the weeks or months that people spent stuck at home, isolating from the risk of COVID-19, we all experienced a taste of how it feels to be cut off from our workplaces, or learning communities, or our favourite activity. The sense of isolation and loss was significant, and it was a big motivation for many us to find innovative work arounds. Indeed, reflecting on the incredible changes that have taken place since COVID-19 began is both inspiring and a little upsetting. Upsetting, because an obvious implication is that inclusion was always within our reach, and it just wasn’t important enough.

The question is: can we find a similar sense of motivation to find innovative ways of adjusting the way we do these things in the future, so that everyone can be included? The most important thing that we could do in this respect would be to actually listen to people with disabilities, who already know what they need and have, in fact, been sharing their expertise for a long time now.

When we are talking about inclusion, there could be nothing more fundamental to this than inclusion in the decision-making process itself. Indeed, this process of ensuring that any action that is taken is first and foremost informed by the voices of persons with disabilities is central to the motto ‘Nothing about us without us’, which reflects the core right to participation that is enshrined in international law. As Charbel Zada has argued in relation to the poorly considered impact of COVID-19 policy on people with disability:

‘We have the right to be part of the conversation, and it is so important that we are, because when we’re involved, we can inform policies based on what works for us and what doesn’t. … I’m also exhausted with abled people making shortsighted policies. We’re in unprecedented times right now, and I hope unprecedented times will bring unprecedented change. Perhaps we can finally be at the forefront of the conversations informing the policies that govern our lives and bodies.’

 

 

Cristy ClarkDr Cristy Clark is a senior lecturer with the Faculty of Business, Government and Law at the University of Canberra. Her work focuses on the intersection of human rights, neoliberalism, activism and the environment, and particularly on the human right to water.

Main image: Woman using a wheelchair to sit at home office (Getty Images)

Topic tags: Cristy Clark, disability, COVID-19, accessibility, inclusion, ableism

 

 

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Existing comments

Thank you for this article, Dr Cristy Clark. One group that seems ignored whenever people think of disability consists of those who are hearing impaired. My profoundly hearing impaired companion can only hear speech (with the help of hearing aids) in a quiet setting with no more than 2-3 people present. Such settings are rare. The world outside the home is a very noisy place. During the pandemic, I have participated in many zoom sessions, none of which provided closed captions for the hearing impaired. I have just researched this matter and discover that it is up to the host of a zoom session to schedule captioning. Hmm.


Janet | 18 June 2021  

Yes Janet, being one who was deaf since infancy, now partly remedied by surgery and hearing aids, I am well aware of the social isolation of deafness. It also affects speech in childhood which gets interpreted as idiocy. Today being elderly many others understand because it is far more common in the elderly, but because for them it is late life onset many more friendships were made previously. That social isolation follows you throughout life for being unable to have conversations with more than one person at a time means those ties are just not often established. A group setting, where friendships begin is isolation among many.


Bruce | 21 June 2021  

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