As we slowly emerge from the lockdown, Joe Kenny, who is blind, argues passionately that the voices of people with disabilities need to be heard, and not ignored, in the debate about tackling coronavirus.

Joe Kenny who lost his sight 37 years ago

By Joe Kenny

Can we talk about this?

Is the independence of people with disabilities a price worth paying in the fight against Covid-19?

I was asked recently, when out and about, did I feel anxious about keeping people two metres distant from me. I thought about it for a while and I’ve come to the conclusion, I don’t actually want people to stay away from me.

‘It’s fair to say that this brave new world of social or physical distancing has left us both feeling worried and anxious for the future’

To me, it feels like the world is talking about nothing else but social distancing and other restrictions to stop Coronavirus spreading whilst trying to kick-start the economy and community life but it’s a conversation happening without the voice of people who live with disabilities. It feels like this rush to embrace physical and social distance seems to be at the expense of disabled people’s freedom and independence?

Our news feeds are full of revelations on the cost of Covid-19 to governments, social care services, and local business, but why is no one asking how much it is costing us in terms of our quality of life?

I’m a dad of three. I live in Belfast with my family and I’m blind, as blind as it gets. I lost my sight 37 years ago and my partner is partially sighted. It’s fair to say that this brave new world of social or physical distancing has left us both feeling worried and anxious for the future. But more than that, I feel powerless. People with disabilities are being told rather than asked what’s good for us.

Back at the end of March, I’ll never forget the experience of going to my local shop only to be met with a whole new regime that seemed to have kicked in overnight.

Oh, I thought on the first morning as I was confronted by the closed doors of my local Tesco, is this place now shut too? It wasn’t but they had started a one in, one out, policy, complete with security staff, tape, and cones.

Of course, as I couldn’t see this and no one had told me, I walked straight to the front of the queue, much to the disbelief of those waiting.

Upon entering the shop, they had marked out the floor with arrows for shoppers to follow a one-way system and had deployed all sorts of interesting ways to keep us from going too near anything or anyone.

Most shops now have a station for sanitising your hands placed conveniently by the front door but if you can’t see it, how do you know it’s there. That also goes for all the social distancing measures. If you can’t see them, can’t read all this new signage and no one is telling you what’s changing, how do you know how to do the right thing?

As the weeks wore on I must admit to taking some small pleasure when confronted at the door of a shop by a member of staff and asking for assistance. The moment of confusion as they took in my white cane – and processed that I was not like the others, and therefore wouldn’t just respond to a carefully worded sign or gesture – was priceless.

It regularly sends me into a blind rage that some businesses and services still don’t get it. There are people who live in this community who have disabilities – whether visible or invisible. We all have different needs.

Access everyday amenities differently because of a disability or health condition and still, even now in 2020, plans are made, restrictions enforced, and policies drawn up, that often disregard those people – people like me. What will it take to get those that manage, that make decisions about anything, to think of people other than ‘Mickey Mainstream’ and ‘Suzi Sighted Public?

Believe it or not, there is a Disability Discrimination Act and we shouldn’t be afraid to use it.

Of course, I understand that social and physical distancing has a role to play if we are to halt the march of Covid-19. And I, like everyone else, have a responsibility to do my bit. I am frankly worried though that by telling everyone to stay away from each other is, by default, making it nearly impossible for anyone to assist or help each other through what is still a very difficult time.

The glaringly obvious question in my mind remains, how can you offer a hand, arm or shoulder to guide someone if you’re two metres away. It’s a circle that we haven’t yet squared and no one seems to want to talk about it.

I’ve mentioned this a few times on different social media channels and I’m met with an answer that goes something like: “We are working on it.”

Are we though or are we just saying nothing until we hear more? Hoping that someone else will come up with the answer and we can all stop scratching our heads about it. I get it, I do. If a blind person comes into your shop and asks a member of staff to give them a hand to get some bits and pieces, what, as a business or service provider, must you now do. Should you refuse to offer physical guiding? Is there a way to guide someone whilst staying two metres away or is it simply okay to breach the virtual two-metre perimeter fencing to guide someone whilst protecting yourself with other measures like hand washing?

This is important to get right but I ask you this, if we, the public, can’t go within two metres of each other, if that is the best we can come up with, why is it totally fine for Premiership footballers to play football and are we going to believe that passengers on planes, buses, and trains are really sitting two metres apart?

Do you see what I mean? It would seem that this two-metre thing is not an absolute but rather a convenient public message. It won’t do every time and we need to allow for the times that it won’t.

There’s bound to be people reading this who are probably thinking that I’m talking rubbish. That it’s vital that we stop Covid19 at any cost and that people with disabilities will have to just put up with it for now.

‘I don’t know about you, but I don’t want our new normal to be one where the rights and needs of people who live with disabilities are just set aside in the name of public health’

But consider this, I’m a father, I live and work in Belfast independently. Why is it okay that my independence is disproportionately affected?

If you live your life not requiring assistance at the supermarket, the train station, or do not rely heavily on taxis to pick the kids up from child care or go to the bank, you probably don’t have an issue with the current restrictions. It’s probably not something that worries you as you reason that it is worth it to fight coronavirus.

But for me and many others like me, the cost is too high sometimes and no one ever asks us how much of our hard-won independence we are willing to sacrifice.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want our new normal to be one where the rights and needs of people who live with disabilities are just set aside in the name of public health. They don’t have to be.

A society that takes effective measures to fight Covid-19 and one that also respects and welcomes different ways of living are not mutually exclusive. So I’m asking, can we talk about this?

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