Coronavirus restrictions provide new opportunities for people with disabilities

DPA President Dr Robert Gurney looks at how our new reliance on communications technology has opened doors for the disabled community

Across the world we have seen billions of people ‘locked down’ at home in an effort to control the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. These unprecedented restrictions on day to day living and free movement have had a massive impact on physical and mental health as people struggle to cope with the sudden and unexpected changes to their lives. But for some people with disabilities this is normality, and “welcome to my world” is a phrase that many may now consider more seriously with new “lived experience” of an isolated existence.

Whilst there has been much reporting on the negative effect of self-isolation on mental wellbeing during the lockdown, we have seen little coverage of the huge opportunities that are developing for people with disabilities to participate in work, culture and socialising.

As the world moves more towards restricted movement, “virtual living” and a necessary reliance on information technology to provide communication, paradoxically society is becoming much more accessible to people with disabilities. Many of the things that employers have historically referred to as “reasonable adjustments” have suddenly become available to everyone – not just people with difference. No lengthy application forms, no middle managerial authorisation required just a simple strategic decision that this is what is required for business to continue. Remote working, personal laptops, phones and conference call facilities have opened up a new world, especially to those who have historically missed out due to poor access. Logistically there are challenges in organising mass remote working opportunities but we have seen just how quickly it has been achieved where there is a strategic will to do this.

Greater Manchester Police are to be congratulated on creating the first ever “home working” non-emergency call handler facility. It has been achieved quickly and with consideration for operational security but what a huge opportunity this presents for people with disabilities. Clearly the primary intention has been to maintain staffing levels and retain the skills of people who are required to self-isolate, but this really is a fabulous example of how technology can open up opportunities for the police to recruit hidden talent from the disabled community. Removing workplace barriers by introducing remote workstations is undoubtedly going to increase resilience and open up a wider recruitment pool of skilled people to the police service. Hats off to you Chief Superintendent Paul Clements, you are leading by example in stepping out of the comfort zone for the police service and creating a fine example of just how easy it is to implement change that is beneficial to all.

Culturally, we are now seeing much greater opportunities for people to experience so much more about our history and our heritage. So much is now being opened up to us all, irrespective of difference, but the new opportunities for people with disabilities are groundbreaking. Local religious services are now being broadcast on the Internet, royal palaces and museums are offering virtual tours, and cultural institutions are opening their doors to online viewers. The amazing thing is that most of these things are free to access and you can “visit” these places from the comfort of your own home. Even more impressive is that this is going on all over the world – so we are witnessing a massive boost to cultural engagement for many with disabilities. Imagine the pleasure of being able to experience all of these wonderful places when you have been restricted by disability to home living or limited travel!

This new era of “virtual living” has also had an incredibly positive effect on social interaction for those who have challenges in getting to venues or physically meeting up with people. Social media platforms now provide all sorts of face to face communication options and this has been further enabled by increased broadband and phone communication allowances across the board. Music concerts that have historically been out of reach to some due to location or cost are now being streamed for free by artists looking out for their fans during the coronavirus pandemic. This is an entirely new experience for many of my friends who would never normally have been able to get to a concert. A hearty “well done” to those behind these initiatives, you really have opened up a new world to so many people.

Afternoon tea with friends can now be recreated using face to face video communication via computer or phone – and this is not just locally, you can even meet with people thousands of miles away.

Panic buying and food shortages created a huge amount of anxiety for everyone on top of the very real fear of contracting a life threatening illness. It has been fabulous to see the Government step in to work with the major supermarkets to ensure that vulnerable people are given priority treatment, whether that be through ring-fenced shopping times or home delivery lists.

Interestingly, we have seen a new wave of medical support and intervention from the medical profession. Whilst there are massive concerns about patients missing out on vital treatment and reviews, it is heartening to hear that some consultants have invested in remote video consultation. Wow! – what a difference this could make for those with mobility challenges or for whom hospital visits are an exhausting and expensive experience. Clearly there is a need for physical examination in many cases but in others where the medical expert can view injuries or physical symptoms remotely a video conference could be emotionally and financially beneficial. A small investment in video conferencing technology could save thousands for the NHS in terms of transport, buildings and support staff costs, but it may also improve the quality of life for many of us who have to regularly suffer the indignity of spending a whole day at a hospital for a 20 minute consultation. For many of our older peers who rely on patient transfer services, video consultancy could have a massively positive effect on their physical and emotional wellbeing.

Educational facilities are now making the most of online teaching. Whilst not great for parents doing their best to adjust to self-isolation and the sudden expectation that they become home-schooling experts, for others this means a huge boost in terms of courses and training available to them. We are even seeing specialist police training courses being made available online – amazing that this was unfeasible until this epidemic! 

None of this is new technology – what’s new is the way that we are now using it and just how important it is to all of us in the current climate, more especially those with disabilities.

So what does this hold for the future? There is a view that coronavirus-type illnesses may become seasonal or have a permanent impact on society. The chances are that those leaders with good foresight will be planning not only to continue providing good technology but to improve it. To provide outstanding communications technology to society is not just morally the right way to go, it makes good business sense.

For decades, many in the public sector have been suspicious of remote working and new technology, but I strongly suspect that the positive experiences resulting from this unprecedented situation will change that mindset. People with disabilities have historically suffered a lack of opportunity created purely by bureaucracy and a lack of strategic foresight. Indeed, many people with disabilities are understandably exasperated by others complaining about being isolated for a long time, being cut off socially, working from home and the potential for becoming seriously ill through infection. This is our lived experience, and it is interesting to see how others react to suddenly being forced to live the lifestyle that we have lived for many years.

On a very positive note, this could easily lead to permanent accessibility for everyone irrespective of health or even social standing, but it will require ongoing investment. I really believe that the world will change for the better as people experience the barriers that face people with disabilities on a day to day basis.

However, despite the terrible effects of this dreadful illness, there have been some hugely positive outcomes. Worldwide pollution has reduced, crime has reduced and people have had time to think about the value of social interaction. It has given us time to stop and think about others and how through the use of technology we can improve communication those with protected characteristics.

The world has seen how valuable our emergency services are, how much we rely on them to help us when times are challenging and why it is so important to invest in their future.

It’s time to think how the police service can operate differently and start to engage with an all too often hidden community, people with disabilities. In the famous words of Sir Robert Peel – “The police are the public and the public are the police”.

We still have a long way to go before the police service is truly representative of the disabled community it serves or indeed before it engages properly with people with disabilities. However, there are huge opportunities for improving this position by taking advantage of the fabulous communications technology that is out there right now. There are many ethical and financial positives that derive from this type of technology such as less time travelling, fewer offices required, less stress for employees, improved trust and engagement with internal and external communities – the list goes on.

This epidemic has shown us how easily the police service has adapted and how quickly it has adopted modern technology as a way of communicating with its staff and the public. It won’t take much to utilise this technology to improve the way that the service communicates with our external and internal disabled communities. It just needs people to think a little more outside of the box, be a bit more creative and grasp new technologies as they emerge not many years after the private sector. 5G is just around the corner, and this has the potential to completely change the way that we communicate and convey information. The police service needs to be ahead of the game and I feel sure that the experience of lockdown has opened everyone’s eyes to the benefits that better communication brings – especially with the disabled community.

Finally, please follow the government advice: stay at home, keep safe, but most of all stay in touch with friends and colleagues by whatever means you have available to you. ∎