Updated: June 10, 2020 6:33:45 pm
Everyone’s saying we have to start living with the virus, go back to redefining our lives in the post-coronavirus new normal. The last two months have heightened so many of my hidden anxieties, but the idea of the “new normal” tops the chart. Don’t get me wrong, as a person with disability, isolation or being at home isn’t something unimaginable for me.
At the beginning of the lockdown, my younger brother, ever so eager to go out — to get a smoke or to have fun with his friends — very nonchalantly mentioned to me how it’s easier for me to stay at home. He said it not as a comment but because he’s known that access has been such a big hindrance in my life. How in the last year of being in Calcutta, that’s all I cribbed about, the lack of accessible public transport and places. But I have been an ‘outgoing’ person nonetheless. So the idea of being in a room with no other outlet has been a daunting one.
I have been living through the lockdown in the hope that things will get better. I’ll be able to travel soon to my favourite cafe where me and my friend indulge in our beloved desserts, hugging each other more than required. But this seems like a distant dream at least to me and this adds to my anxiety with every new easing of the lockdown guidelines.
Let me explain why. Living with a mobility disability means you need more assistance, more touch-dependence so to speak, in almost every movement. And touch isn’t the most sought-after thing in the era of social distancing.
I move around spaces, manage the basic physiological needs, with added assistance. My family, friends, and my caretaker back in Calcutta aren’t just my support system, they give me a hand… quite literally! There’s no possible way for me to shift without any external support, however minimal. In the initial phases of the lockdown, a lot of my peers from the community faced problems in availing permissions for the caretakers’ access, this is still a concern. Not only that, but my wheelchair is also an inseparable part of my existence. Even in pre-COVID times, there were many incidents where my wheelchair wasn’t “allowed”. Now in the touch-me-not scenario, what direction it might take is a nagging thought.
“Anyone willing to buy my wheelchair? Selling to raise money to be able to buy tickets on evacuation flight to India and to pay for an aisle wheelchair as airlines not willing to provide one due to social distancing,” wrote Ankit Aggarwal, an Indian student based out of the United Kingdom, on the microblogging platform Twitter. This shook me in all honesty, I hadn’t actually thought about it prior to this that taking a flight would be that impossible a task.
India recently announced to open its domestic flights from May 25, with a set of detailed guidelines to be followed to maintain social distancing. I looked and looked at it, not understanding what it means.
“No airport staff would come in contact with the passenger, elderly and ailing people to avoid air travel”.
I think that I’m not ailing, am I? What if my job wants me to take this one flight? What if I’m a student stuck somewhere wanting to come home, like Ankit? How do I ever go back to my college campus if an aisle wheelchair doesn’t pass the test of social distancing protocols? You may think I’m self-absorbed to think about this when lakhs of migrants are walking thousands of kilometres to go back to their homes, maybe I am, but aren’t my worries valid in the times of uncertainty?
In Delhi, where I live currently, a lot of restrictions are now eased. My initial thought was to go to my favourite bookstore and breathe some fresh air after living in the room for 70 days — I live in an urban village in Delhi with cramped up buildings and very little space. I don’t own a car and have mostly relied on Delhi Metro previously, so incidentally, I checked Uber’s new protocol and realised even calling an uber isn’t going to happen for me anytime soon. On the other hand, I have my peers, who are struggling because the masks are a hindrance to lip reading for some, others are stuck in spaces without much assistance, questioning what if they incidentally do become the virus carrier and may not even find the quarantine centres accessible to them.
This piece comes from a place of privilege, I definitely cannot deny that. I’m at a place currently where avoiding any movement is easy, not essential at all, but what if it does incidentally become that. Also, 70 days with no sunlight can have a great impact on one’s mental health. The added anxieties when one’s notions of what is normal are changing so much and so quickly do not help either.
‘I feel like a second class citizen, for whom policies are an after-thought’, you will find me saying, sometimes hiding behind the veil of humour, other times with a heavy heart. But today it’s more serious than ever. Today, as we reinvent our work from home policies, redesign our public space and businesses to be more social-distance friendly, let’s not repeat the mistakes of our past. Let inclusion take the front seat interlinked with all our policies and create an accessible habitat.
Preeti Singh is a student at IIM Calcutta. She is a Disability rights activist who writes about diversity and inclusion. She can be reached at @Singhpreeti_17 on Twitter.
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