COVID-19 Transformed Work Opportunities & Accessibility For Disabled People, The Return To Normalcy Should Not Undo The Progress
The starship Enterprise, Wakanda's Birnin Zana and Gotham City's Watchtower all have one thing in common: they are wheelchair accessible. And fictional, these are places we've seen and explored in different forms of media. They are places we escape to, for one reason or another.
Before the pandemic, my full-time job was creating content for comic and gaming conventions across the USA. At over 25 cons a year I ran discussion panels, costume contests, and sales booths. I'm also disabled. I'm an ambulatory wheelchair user. This means that if I stand up from my wheelchair, I am not miraculously healed. I have chronic illnesses that make standing or walking for longer than a few minutes untenable.
As conventions shut down, my calendar and bank account emptied at a record pace. Some cons tried shifting to an online presence, but it just wasn't the same. Online ticketed events are a hard sell. Instead of other cons, an online con is competing against the entire internet. There was not enough hype for e-comic cons to pay the bills. Some holdouts were still trying to do in-person events, but the way my immune system is set up? Hard pass.
Between cons, I'd previously done some editing and sensitivity reading. This entails a type of editing in which the story is viewed through the lens of authentic lived experience related to the characters or settings. Publishing offices were rapidly closing, but there was remote work available. Like nearly 70% of America, I made the leap to working from home. I deployed my arsenal of skills, contacts, and experience to line up as many gigs as I could.
I became the Super-Skrull of online seminars. Need someone to speak about accessibility in the workplace? Diversity and inclusion in media? Toxicity in gaming? Discussion panels on any fandom? I'm your girl. I leveled up in all forms of online conferencing. I knew more about Zoom than the Flash.
I went full speed ahead with consulting on exciting new projects. I was incredibly grateful for the opportunities to work with game studios and publishers in other countries. Remote work had opened up a literal world of possibilities. It turns out that independent contractors don't need a passport or a work visa to do freelance editing or video game development internationally.
For disabled, chronically ill and immunocompromised people, the battle for accessibility throughout the pandemic was like a roller coaster. Before the pandemic, remote options simply weren't being made available to those who needed them. But as COVID-19 became a problem for everyone, remote learning and remote work was suddenly not only possible, it was mandatory and convenient. It allowed unparalleled access for millions who previously had to fight tooth and nail for reasonable accommodations. It says a lot about our society that it took a global pandemic for these options to be provided. Accessibility isn’t seen as a need until able bodied people need it too.
A big plus to remote work was fewer accessibility fails to worry about. The downside was the assumption many companies made about 'free time.' The expectation that because we were all at home, meant we were always available for work, was something I constantly pushed back against. I had to set clear parameters for when I could be expected to respond to requests, without fear of losing opportunities or seeming ungrateful. I was working constantly, but only during approved hours.
The accessibility U-turn after COVID cases staggers
At the same time, the cost of living had never been higher. It wasn't safe to go to the supermarket. Everything had to be delivered. I had to increase my internet to the highest tier to support all the video conferencing and live-streaming. It wasn't optional—it was mandatory, the only way to survive was to keep up.
Many of my disabled peers commiserated in Zoom calls at the loss of human contact. We're living with compromised immune systems in a pandemic. We are all “Bubble Boy”. By this point, we would have seen each other several times at conventions and we sorely missed that. We all agreed that it was for the best that we isolated until the danger had passed. But when would that be? And what would the world look like when it did?
Despite the danger of stepping out the front door, I still had to go to the doctor and eventually the hospital. The years of avoiding medical care like millions of other Americans had finally caught up with me. While I had managed to avoid catching COVID-19, I started collecting new diagnoses like undesirable Pokemon. Try as I might, it was Pidgeys and Rattattas all the way down. Along with my new friends came increased fatigue, malaise, and memory loss. It sure SOUNDED like long COVID, but I continued to test negative and was isolating nonstop, so I put that out of my mind.
As the pandemic dragged on, the pressure to return to conventions increased. The misconception that only immunocompromised people could die from COVID was extremely prevalent. So was the faulty notion that there was a binary of outcomes — either death or life. The reality that long COVID was something that could happen to anyone was entirely ignored in these discussions. It was extremely frustrating to be asked to attend a mass event during a pandemic, as someone who likely wouldn’t survive infection.
“See, this convention on the West Coast happened and there wasn't an outbreak!” friends would say. But without contact tracing by the convention, the Department of Health, the West Coast Avengers, ANYONE, how could we be sure? Millions weren't getting tested, or vaccinated, or masking. Some conventions had mask requirements, but then also set aside rooms specifically for attendees to be maskless in. It was like having a sign up that said “Line Up Here To Catch And Spread COVID.”
There seemed to be a disconnect between the reality of live-streamed funerals, masks and vaccines being required everywhere and the mirror universe where people were eating in restaurants, going to theme parks, and carrying on like nothing had happened. It was incredibly difficult to reconcile the advice from medical experts to avoid crowded indoor spaces and people, with the fact that schools and businesses were reopening.
Navigating the New Normal
Although by May 2021, many places had ceased or lessened pandemic restrictions, I didn't change anything about my routine, as nothing had really changed for me. Vaccinated people can still catch and transmit COVID-19. My immune response was likely to be as robust as Baby Groot on a bad day. I had to turn down in-person gigs and that hurt. The remote work options were becoming fewer and fewer. They were no longer willing to be accessible for me — no online options, despite the fact that 9 million Americans still had COVID and the numbers weren't going down.
Unfortunately, many institutions and companies didn't see the value in continuing to offer remote options for work or learning after they determined that the pandemic danger had passed. In spite of rising infection rates, disabled students and workers found themselves being left behind as the world seemed to move on. The accommodations that had been offered when everyone needed them were suddenly being taken away. It felt like our schools and jobs were saying that disabled and immunocompromised people didn’t matter. That our education and labor weren’t important.
As we catch up to the present day, there is a new variant of concern. An attendee of a recent NYC anime convention has tested positive for the Omicron variant. Just as many people were starting to feel safe going out again, there might be just cause to stay in. The infrastructure for widespread remote work and education still exists. While many companies including tech giants like Google are now offering the option of remote and hybrid work, the majority of organizations still expect people to show up in person. With a strong emphasis on diversity and inclusion in the workforce, it is counterproductive to remove remote or hybrid work as an option which enables not just disabled people but also working parents and many other parts of the population to be gainfully employed.
Data shows that remote work improves productivity and is a step in the right direction. Disabled people who don't have the privilege of feeling safe in a pandemic have some hope for the future. Hope that the accessibility of the Enterprise is a little bit closer, that the inclusion of Wakanda is attainable. Even if the present day feels more like Gotham City, maybe we can still work remotely from the Watchtower.