The Pandemic Has Proven That We Can Be More Accessible: We Were Just Choosing Not To

The last year and a half of our lives have been an eye-opening one in a lot of ways. We’ve all had little else to do but watch as the structures supporting our society are proven to be flawed in their design, buckling under the added weight of this new viral threat.

Racism, misogyny, transphobia, and the very imperfect political infrastructure we trusted to keep us safe in moments of crisis have all reared their ugly heads in the worst possible ways. Not to mention the sheer political and ideological extremism and division that’s cropped up- looking at you, anti-vaxxers and Q-anon. Needless to say, it’s been an eye-opening little period of time. 

The pandemic is an experience I’m sure a lot of us are keen to forget as quickly as possible- I know I’ve had moments where I’ve wished it to disappear as quickly as it seemed to roll in. We miss normalcy, and that’s natural.

However, when the world gets turned upside down in such an unexpected way, there’s a lot to learn from the situation. I’d argue that right now, as we’re slowly gearing up to try and flip our society right-way-up again (thanks to the efforts of medical teams and vaccinations) we should be very carefully considering how we’d like to go about this.

As we’ve seen already, many parts of our ‘old lives’ were dysfunctional and harmful- perhaps those ones are better left in the past. So how do we choose what to banish to memory and what to keep with us in our new, post-pandemic lives? One big answer is the way we’ve been looking at accessibility. 

A fact that’s been quite shocking and- dare I say- surprisingly pleasant is the way so many institutions and companies managed to redirect their services to a new, primarily-online mode over the past year and a bit. University lectures, team meetings, and recreational activities have all settled themselves in the world of Zoom and other such video conferencing software, allowing an ease of access that’s never really been seen before.

To use a personal example, university lectures are suddenly recorded and uploaded on a private server as a norm for watching in your own time and for revision purposes. As someone who’s spent a not-insignificant amount of time campaigning and nagging at the school board to implement such measures, it was a bittersweet feeling seeing it so easily enacted. 

This begs the question: why were they so reluctant to take this step in the first place?

Every time the question was asked, a different answer was given- perhaps it was to do with the lecturers’ personal reluctance to be filmed. To others, it was about the fact that students supposedly wouldn’t show up to class anymore if all lectures were recorded and uploaded online.

Yet now that we’ve taken the classroom out of the equation, we’re cataloging each piece of teaching content with ease. The accessibility key that so many with physical disabilities, mental illnesses, and a host of other conditions have been asking for is now finally a reality.

People with disabilities have been hit harder by COVID-19 than any other demographic. Certain parts of the public have shown a degree of disinterest in protecting those with underlying conditions that is concerningly large (see: anti-lockdown protestors who were unsettlingly okay with putting the vulnerable in danger for the sake of freedom pints down at the pub).

And now is the time to be questioning that mentality- we are all responsible for upholding equality for all. Now, especially, for people with disabilities. 

Other services have made the notable move to online as well. The normalisation of online doctors’ appointments, therapy, and even business meetings is a cultural norm I truly hope continues to stick around even after we’ve exited our final lockdown. This pandemic has taught us what we do and don’t need- and what we definitely do not need is an unnecessarily tight schedule full of back-and-forth commutes to meetings. 

Even the education sector has seen booming growth. Not only has there been a huge rise in educational content produced with the expressed intent of online consumption, but this has also become a normalised practise.

With this accessibility came new doors to be opened- certain opportunities which may have been previously unattainable are now centralised online and a few clicks away. It’s becoming more and more common for professionals to turn to the internet to do some extra training such as the master of leading education online. All in all, in some respects it’s never been easier to access so much content with such ease. 

On the other hand, however, there is still much work to be done. As with all things, COVID-19 has shined a light on and exacerbated the inequalities we had already been living with up until this point- and income inequality is no exception. It’s no secret that the working class is one of the groups hit hardest by the pandemic as workers were faced with no choice but to keep working in potentially perilous essential roles, whilst many others found work from the comfort and safety of their own home.

Young people also saw a near-unprecedented level of unemployment as many rely on hospitality work in order to keep themselves afloat- a sector that has been notoriously crumbled by the pandemic. With nightclubs, bars, and restaurants unable to (legally) keep their doors open for very long, huge numbers of staff were left with little to no income.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, a shocking 20% of the UK is said to live in a state of poverty. 

Whilst the move to online has proven to be more accessible for many of us, it’s also difficult to neglect the truth that not everyone will have access to a quality internet connection- something that’s truly necessary for the technologically demanding nature of video conferencing in particular.

And, as we know, video conferencing has become a new necessity. In addition to this, access to devices capable of connecting to and accessing the internet is not something that’s guaranteed. With so many households sharing a single laptop or tablet, accessibility becomes, once again, reduced as availability is torn between a number of users.

In a post-pandemic world, how can we balance these needs and requirements in a way that allows all participants (in whatever this may be – work, education, or recreation) the access they need without endangering or alienating any group? 

The answer seems to be a large combination of methods. Dual delivery seems to be the key- keeping the new, digital infrastructure in place whilst also offering some pre-pandemic normalcy could offer a solution to this issue. The balancing of these different components may take some getting used to.

However, there’s a strong hope that the last year and a bit that we’ve all collectively gone through (and hopefully never have to ever again) has opened our eyes to the flaws in our system in a way we’d never experienced before. It’s not always been easy to see, but it’s important that we do.

All of us were aware of the inequalities plaguing our societies in our pre-pandemic state of existence, I’m sure. However, the blessing of this COVID-ridden time of our lives (of which there are admittedly very few) is that it’s given us the tools to concretely identify the areas we must target, and given us the collective energy to put those plans into action.

After all, when society has already been completely metamorphosed overnight by a disaster out with any of our controls, it feels like there’s nothing else to lose. Now is the time to take a hold of the way we live whilst it’s in such a pliable state and try to build something better back up from these scattered pieces. It’s clear now that our pre-pandemic world was broken. And we have the chance to fix it.

I hope that this collective experience has shown what we’re capable of and how we’ve been falling short. And I hope that we manage to keep the momentum of social change we’ve recently seen going with just as much- and, if not, more- intensity.

With the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, the uproar over the deep-rooted misogynistic violence we normalised in our society, increasing class awareness, and so much more, we’re in a collective state that is primed to change the way we do things. It’s about time we see it through as we work towards opening the world back up again.

Change is difficult, but we do it all the time. The last year and a half is a living, breathing, a diseased testament to that. It’s time we really look at why we don’t do something as simple as record university lectures for the benefit of those who physically cannot always attend, to something as grand as narrowing the gaps in wealth in our country.