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Whilst we cheer — and eventually hug — about what we are gaining as lockdown eases, it is easy to forget what we risk losing.
It’s May 2021, and the world has grown so accustomed to the “new normal” that there is a collective eye roll at the mere mention of the words “unprecedented” and “challenging times”. The pandemic’s multitude of difficulties and complications has interfered with every facet of our lives, yet we are beginning to see the return of normal life. And we are excited about it.
Pubs are open again; theatres and cinemas are advertising their reopening. We will have meals out, shopping trips and staycations. It is both a celebration and a collective sigh of relief.
There is, of course, hesitancy surrounding the gradual unveiling of life post-lockdown — for obvious, virus-related reasons. But there is also unease at the thought of losing the main (only) benefit of the pandemic: the rise of accessibility. Accommodations deemed impossible when requested by a few have become freely available when necessary for the entire general public. Many of society’s most vulnerable, who have likely endured more than a year of shielding and isolation, face the potential loss of the freedom and opportunities gained from working from home and virtual events.
Accessibility has never been more cherished nor more widely available than in the last twelve months. During the lockdown periods, almost everything has been made available to enjoy virtually. From the rise of pub quizzes to virtual book signings, online theatre productions to dreaded Teams calls, making events accessible from home has been the driving force of the arts and culture sector. These same accommodations repeatedly denied to disabled people as too difficult or too restrictive became overnight completely achievable.
Whilst it was — and still is — frustrating to see the ease with which everyone met these accessibility needs, it has granted so many of us a multitude of opportunities that were previously unavailable. The arts have smoothly adapted to virtual life — barring the occasional technical difficulties and frozen screens — giving new freedoms to those housebound, bed-bound, with limited mobility or mental health struggles that made in-person events an impossibility. It has removed some barriers to access in terms of location, travel and costs. And, it has opened up opportunities for all kinds of international participation; attendees are no longer restricted by where they live, and panelled events can include guests from around the world.
Our virtual world made 2020 easier in a lot of ways. It generated escapism, created communities, and kept the world spinning when it felt like everything had stopped. But, now that the world is beginning to open up again, what happens to these opportunities that the majority no longer need? While most people gain more physical freedom, the potential end of virtual events is a devastating loss of freedom for others. Where does it leave people who still need them, who will always need them, and were likely denied these same accommodations pre-pandemic?
I hope online events do continue. And though the excessive use of the “new normal” might make us all want to scream, there might be some merit in the phrase. A new normal can make accessibility a priority rather than an afterthought. Asking for accommodations can be seen as acceptable rather than stigmatised. Inclusivity should be valued and necessary, even when lockdown is — hopefully — a thing of the past.