While the global pandemic is difficult for everyone, we all know that people with disabilities sometimes face unique challenges the general public may not be aware of. A section of our new content series, “Real People, Real Stories,” is devoted to highlighting the ways in which COVID-19 has impacted real people with disabilities. We hope to drive home the importance of an accessible internet during a time when it’s an absolute necessity for everyone.
Peter Bossley, leader of the Digital Accessibility compliance program at Ohio State.
What challenges did you face before the COVID-19 outbreak?
I’m low vision, so I faced the usual accessibility challenges related to transportation, accessibility of apps, websites, etc. My experience is not atypical in that regard. However, I am perhaps a little atypical in that I work in accessibility professionally, so I know what it takes to make something accessible. It’s frustrating knowing it could be better for everyone.
What new challenges are you currently facing?
Plenty of stuff, both personally and professionally. In normal circumstances in my personal life I’m able to get things delivered to me; living in the “new normal” I find that delivery apps have limited availability and quite a number of necessities delivered are impossible to get. For those of us who rely on these deliveries it’s challenging. Folks that don’t have disability limitations are putting stress on the system. Sighted people have alternatives like driving to other stores if they can’t find what they need, whereas people with disabilities don’t usually have that option.
I’m also seeing stores that usually provide assistance to people with disabilities are not doing it effectively or not doing it at all. For example, many people with vision limitations need help finding items in the store or help with self-checkout. People with mobility-related disabilities cannot reach items in stores, or cannot carry it or may need help putting it in cart.
Lots of retail locations have customer service centers that would have helped these individuals in the past, but now that stores are facing staffing issues and struggling to ensure their employees keep a safe distance, these accommodations may no longer be available. As a person with a disability, you roll the dice when you go out to shop on whether you may be able to get anything at all.
Professionally, I lead the Digital Accessibility compliance program at Ohio State, and like thousands of others, have had to make the shift to working fully remotely. Like other educational entities, Ohio State has found that there are many challenges to providing seamless equitable education remotely. Our university takes it seriously, but it’s rapidly evolving situation and we are honestly struggling to make this shift rapidly very well. We’re getting it done; providing accessibility that people need but it’s not perfect.
How are you dealing with these new challenges?
I’m very lucky in that I have a good support network made up of lots of friends and family. It’s not a burden for them to help me find stuff I’m not able to get delivered. For me, my challenges are largely small annoyances.
That said, it’s really important to understand that there are lots of people who don’t have that same support network. They aren’t able to get someone to drive them or help them get the same stuff they need. It’s not someone like me I’m worried about, it’s the folks without support networks who have no one to rely on. If we as society provided the means for people to be able to live fully independently, the lack of personal support would not be a problem.
Even when an organization selects accessible software, for example Ohio State uses Canvas for our learning management system (LMS) there are still things that need to be considered. Canvas is generally pretty accessible, but the resulting accessibility for students and faculty is largely dependent on the content that’s user generated. Instructors can make an otherwise very accessible LMS inaccessible by the content they add to it.
I also want to caution that third-party integrations range from very accessible to completely unusable for people using different assistive technology. Institutions need to take care when turning on third-party tools because they are absolutely not all created equal.
Finally, I have some words of encouragement: this is a rough time for everyone. It can be challenging to everyone, but we need to help each other out. Do the best you can; keep in contact with folks and keep their spirits up. The future is ambiguous, but we need to stick together to show each other kindness and hopefully come through this with some beneficial outcomes.
Maybe we’ll see an increased focus on people working from home. For many individuals with disabilities, the ability to work remotely is a big deal. It eliminates transportation issues and may make things easier for them as they can set up their working environment the way they want it. This crisis is demonstrating to a lot of organizations that remote work is doable, even if they’ve never seriously considered it before. I’m hopeful organizations can take what they learned when they were forced to do it and decide that with a few tweaks that it’s workable as a long term strategy.
Hang tight and stay safe!
“I’m hopeful on the education side that we’ll see improvements that mean we can do remote learning and can make it even more accessible. I’m a realist, but also am optimistic with what opportunities might surface as we learn from our experience.”
If you’re interested in sharing your own story for our “Real People, Real Stories” series, tweet at us at @paciellogroup.