The season of gratitude and giving is upon us. While our nation is weary of the pandemic’s continued precautions and mounting infection rates, a question I’ve been asking myself, friends, and family is: “What are you grateful for BECAUSE of the pandemic?” As someone who joined the persons with disabilities ranks due to an incomplete cervical spinal cord injury in September 2018, I discovered a surprising number of pandemic positives for which I am grateful; they far exceeded my negatives to date.
A practice of relentless resilience helped me withstand the shock of my injury and the painstaking labor of re-learning how to walk and use my right hand. As much as I hoped for a miraculous recovery after countless hours of physical therapy, I now display a handicap parking tag in my car window. As I go about my day, I gingerly navigate the curbs, ramps, doors, restrooms, and other interiors and exteriors of public spaces with two hiking poles to steady me. Not lost on me are the many societal changes to improve accessibility brought by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, especially ones I grumbled about before my injury (e.g., a row of empty accessible parking spaces).
The pandemic set in just as I was getting brave enough to navigate my community. It was like getting all dressed up for the prom and arriving at an empty gym. Thankfully, my initial fears — getting sick with the virus, experiencing adverse effects on my husband’s small business and my coaching and consulting practice, sharing a Wi-Fi network with a family of four going to work and school, and caring for aging parents from afar — have not come to pass.
On the contrary, I have noticed several disability-friendly changes that encompass how we respect and serve each other. Perhaps some of the changes we have made to our society to withstand the pandemic are worth keeping when life goes back to “normal.”
Bright Spot #1: Greater Empathy
My injury kept me close to home after leaving my rehabilitation hospital. I wasn’t a hermit, but close. With the pandemic’s stay-at-home orders, my family, friends, and neighbors developed a more profound empathy for my situation as they too became homebound. My community slowed to “my pace” during the shutdown. Many of my neighbors had time to join me for my slow half-mile walk each day. We came together in ways missed when we were racing around for our jobs and errands.
Bright Spot #2: Curbside Appeal
Even though I learned to drive again nine months after my injury, muscling through heavy store doors and balancing purchases with two hiking poles is something I avoid. When the pandemic brought the advent of curbside delivery for almost everything, it opened up my world. Being able to order carryout food and have it delivered to my car meant I could bring home meals prepared by many more restaurants. Ordering and picking up purchases at Whole Foods, Target, Wal-Mart, the hardware store, etc., meant even more accessibility. I didn’t have to entirely rely on my family to take care of everyday purchases or the delivery person to deposit yet another cardboard box filled with a single item on my front porch. I could contribute more fully and reduce the towering volume of boxes in the recycling bin.
Bright Spot #3: Masked Protection
Unfortunately, my spinal cord injury puts me in the high-risk category for coronavirus exposure. Thus, having my community wear masks, properly wash their hands, and disinfect surfaces in public places means I can safely venture out. I’m grateful to my community members who take the mask protocols seriously, which means wearing them over their mouths AND their noses. My mask protects them; their masks protect me.
Bright Spot #4: Virtually Connected
With all my business meetings online, it has become much easier to interact with my coaching and consulting clients. It certainly takes a lot less energy and time than my pre-pandemic routine — drive to my client’s location, find a parking spot, navigate the building, locate the conference room, attend the meeting, and then do the reverse to get home. And I’m not alone in this experience. Companies across the United States are considering going entirely virtual: Facebook, Twitter, Slack, Shopify. One client of mine, an essential business, has continued with virtual meetings even though most team members are in the office. The virtual structure has turned out to be more efficient and effective for everyone.
Bright Spot #5: Equalizing Force
As I returned to work after my injury, I was curious to see how my physical challenges would affect how I was perceived. However, the shift to online business interactions means my difficulties with walking and holding a pen aren’t on display. My hiking poles don’t accidentally trip someone and go crashing to the floor. Unless it helps make a point, I don’t feel the need to explain my injury to new team members, which means I’m relieved of watching their faces change to expressions of horror as they take in my story. I want my brain and capabilities front and center, not where I am in my recovery story. Online interactions can be an equalizer for people with disabilities, which hadn’t occurred to me before I joined this community.
While the coronavirus pandemic is something we’d all like to have in the rearview mirror, I’ve noticed what it has done to further level the playing field for those of us with physical limitations. Whether earning money or spending it, I hope we hold on to the positive changes to our society that make it easier to navigate for everyone.
Julie Mann Edge, Ph.D., is a writer and business and life coach for service providers, entrepreneurs, and small business owners. She lives in Kansas City with her husband and their college-aged daughter and son. Julie experienced an incomplete injury to her cervical spine in September of 2018 and learned to be relentless in her resilience as she recovered her ability to walk and write. Follow her on Instagram at @DrJulieEdge.