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Disability Rights Impact Everyone

Commentary: Disability rights aren't a niche issue, and the COVID-19 pandemic has made that impossible to ignore any longer.

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As I write this, we're in the middle of a mass disabling event that is changing the way the world views disabilities. Hundreds of millions of people have been infected with COVID-19 worldwide, according to the World Health Organization, and anywhere from 10% to 50% of COVID survivors go on to develop the sometimes disabling condition known as long COVID syndrome.

The United States' pandemic response was, in some ways, a bittersweet sight for disabled people. Remote work, an accommodation that had been routinely denied to people with disabilities pre-pandemic, suddenly became widely available to nearly everyone. Meanwhile, protective measures such as masks made it possible for many immunocompromised people to continue working, shopping and seeing friends while minimizing their risk of infection.

Now that most of the country has abandoned those precautions, many disabled people say they're being left behind on the journey to "normalcy." And the truth is we all ultimately miss out when disability rights are neglected, deprioritized or taken away. As the saying goes, "No one of us can be free until everybody is free."

Now is the time to learn one of the most major lessons from the pandemic: Disability rights are important for everyone, regardless of whether you have a disability or not. Even if you don'thave or (somehow) don't know anyone with a disability, you benefit from a world that's accessible and safe. Here's why.

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More people have disabilities than you think

Chances are good that you do know someone with a disability, whether you know it or not. In the US, one in four adults has a disability that "impacts major life activities," according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Disability is more common among older adults: Worldwide, almost half of older people (aged 60 years and over) have a disability, according to data from the United Nations. The world population is also aging, which means disabilities will be even more common going forward. 

It's also worth noting that, like race, disability can be considered a social construct and definitions can vary. Nearsightedness, for example, could be considered a disability but often isn't because vision aids (like glasses) are so easy to get that it doesn't impact major life activities much, if at all.

Many disabilities aren't visible to the naked eye. Known sometimes as "invisible illnesses," these conditions can impact daily life in many ways, but you wouldn't notice them just by looking at someone. (They may not manifest physically or require visible support aids.) These illnesses may be easily dismissed by others, which can make it difficult to feel understood or get proper treatment. Examples of invisible illnesses include lupus, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, fibromyalgia or some mental illnesses.

An issue shouldn't have to touch us directly for us to care about it. But even so, the truth is that almost all of us are bound to have someone in our lives with a disability. While non-disabled people might see disability rights as a far-off or impersonal issue, that idea is false... since disability rights affect every community.

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Anyone can become disabled

In a society that highly prioritizes fitness, it's not easy to accept that your health isn't entirely within your control. If you weren't born with a disability, you could still potentially develop one later in life from an accident, an infection or other factors. These disabilities can be either short-term or long-term.

The COVID pandemic has made this fact exceedingly clear. Viral infections like COVID can result in potentially lifelong disabilities, with changes to the nervous system, the heart and other parts of the body. Long COVID, in particular, is now considered a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act. According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the pandemic resulted in 1.2 million more disabled people from 2020 through 2021, with the majority of the increase in people under 65. (Still, long COVID highlights that the line between disabled and non-disabled isn't always firm. Not all people with long COVID are disabled, and not all people who meet the criteria identify as such.)

Because accessibility is under-prioritized in many settings, people with long COVID must adjust to their new lives with a disability while also having to fight for inclusion in entirely new ways. These experiences confirm what people with disabilities have been saying for years: that accessibility should have been a shared struggle all along.

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Accessibility benefits everyone

Regardless of whether you have a disability, a wide range of factors can make life feel like a square-peg-in-a-round-hole type of situation. Maybe you're a night owl, and waking up early for work is a daily misery. Or maybe you're pregnant and have trouble walking long distances. That's one major way disability rights benefit everyone – we're all unique individuals with unique needs, and greater accessibility makes it easier to get everyone's needs met fairly.

Many adaptations originally intended as disability aids have also been useful for people with other needs. For instance, I religiously use subtitles while watching TV at home, not because I can't hear the audio, but because it helps me focus. Using alt text on images is important for the blind and visually impaired, but it's also helpful for people whose internet connections are too slow to load a photo. And during the pandemic, a wide swath of people benefited from remote work, even those who weren't chronically ill or disabled. 

In the accessibility world, there's something called "universal design." Universal design is when you design a product or environment so that it's usable by anyone, regardless of "age, ability or circumstance," per the RL Mace Universal Design Institute. The idea is that if you build things in a universally accessible way in the first place, you won't need to add specialized adaptations for specific people later. Such design is more equitable and inclusive for disabled people but also makes life more fair in general.

Earlier in the pandemic, many people experienced the freedom that greater accessibility can bring — and on the flip side, those with long COVID are now experiencing the challenges of inaccessibility, some for the first time. If we're lucky, we'll learn from the pandemic by listening to the voices and needs of people with disabilities — and recognizing that their rights matter for everyone, disabled and beyond.

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.