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'Normal didn't work for us': People with disabilities worry about loss of virtual options

Many activities transitioned online amid the pandemic, to the relief of people with disabilities, but now, it seems that that access may go away.
The COVID-19 pandemic has made things like concerts and art museums more accessible for people with disabilities.
The COVID-19 pandemic has made things like concerts and art museums more accessible for people with disabilities.TODAY Illustration / Getty Images/Alan Bushnell
/ Source: TODAY

Eiryn Griest Schwartzman spent years fighting for academic accommodations at their Maryland college with little success, but the coronavirus pandemic changed everything: In-person classes became virtual, with closed-captioning features, making it possible for them to follow what was going on in class.

"That's been a game changer for me," said Griest Schwartzman, 23, who uses they/them pronouns. "... Now I actually have the ability to understand material that I couldn't get before."

However, now that the world is looking towards "the new normal"' Griest Schwartzman and other people with disabilities are worried that accommodations that became standard in 2020 will not be available. Remote classes and work have opened doors for many, and virtual activities and gatherings expanded social bubbles even as many stayed home.

Eiryn Griest Schwartzman said that they have been able to get academic accommodations that were not previously an option during the pandemic. Eiryn Griest Schwartzman

"There is a big push to be completely in-person, and I know it's happening at a lot of schools," said Griest Schwartzman, who has several chronic physical disabilities and psychological conditions. "... A lot of people that are lower risk are very eager to get back to some normal that they have in their mind, and that normal didn't work for us."

'Experts on social distancing'

Sarah Blahovec, a disability advocate who has a chronic illness, said that for many people with disabilities, dealing with isolation and health-related stressors isn't new.

"A lot of disabled people were kind of experts on social distancing before," Blahovec said. "That really was a term that we were using frequently. A lot of us have more difficulty leaving the home, and so (the pandemic) gave us a level of social access that we didn't have before."

Susannah Grace, who lives in England and has several chronic illnesses, said that she has been "housebound (sometimes bedbound)" — for much of the past two decades, so her life "didn't look too different pre-COVID," since she rarely saw friends or family and was "stuck at home" most of the time.

"So many events have suddenly found their way online, which wouldn't have before," Grace said, highlighting a Dungeons and Dragons campaign that she had joined. "Group social activities in particular was something I've totally missed out on for decades now, and now they're online. ... I'm not sure, other than small family gatherings, when I last got to sit with a group of people and just chat, face-to-face."

Susannah Grace said that she has found new friendships online during the pandemic, and hopes that people continue to enjoy virtual meetings.Susannah Grace

Griest Schwartzman said that since people have embraced Zoom, WebEx and other video chat options, they have been able to have more social interaction than ever before.

"It's something I wish I had when I was younger that would have made me feel more included and like I could have a more 'normal' life," Griest Schwartzman said. "For people that haven't needed to rely on that, I don't think they really understood it before the pandemic. ... But now everyone has had to keep in touch over video chat, and I feel like I have stronger relationships with people."

People see major changes in school and work environments

Griest Schwartzman said that it has been "very difficult" to get concrete answers about what the 2021-2022 school year will look like for them. In earlier education, they had difficulty getting accommodations, leading to them dropping out of high school and later acquiring their GED certificate.

"This exact situation of losing accommodations is all too familiar for me, and kind of traumatic," Griest Schwartzman said.

Griest Schwartzman currently attends the University of Maryland Baltimore County, TODAY reached out to the University of Maryland to find out how they would be addressing the 2021 - 2022 school year. A spokesperson shared the following with TODAY:

"The University of Maryland has and continues to provide students with support and resources through several areas across campus, including the Office of Accessibility and Disability Service (ADS). ADS offers disability accommodations such as extended time on tests, captioning, sign language interpreters and adaptive technology to students with disabilities and accessibility needs," the statement read, in part. "These resources were available to students with disabilities before our transition online in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and will remain available to students after we transition back to an in-person learning environment ... As we prepare for transition to in-person education in the fall, students are understandably worried about losing the disability accommodations that helped them thrive in their online courses. We want to assure our students that we remain strongly committed to meeting their accommodation and accessibility needs."

Lawmakers and parents alike have stressed the importance of getting students back in the classroom, especially in the 2021-2022 school year. Some states have already said that their public schools will not offer an online alternative next year, and some colleges have already stated that students must be vaccinated against the coronavirus to return to campus.

Blahovec said that she is worried about her own eventual return to the workplace. She lives outside of Washington, D.C., and said that working from home has been a positive development. Some companies, including Twitter and Microsoft, have said that employees can work from home permanently, but many jobs have begun or are planning a return to the office.

Sarah Blahovec said that she hopes the flexibility of work from home will remain even after the pandemic recedes. Alan Bushnell / Bushnell Photography

While experts believe workplaces will look a little different as more employees return to in-person work, it's expected that most people will return to the office soon. In a survey of more than 350 CEOs and human resources and finance leaders, 70% said they plan to have employees back at their desks by fall 2021, according to CNBC.

Tiara Simmons, a law clerk in California who uses a wheelchair full-time, said that the pandemic changed things for the better "overnight." She is unable to drive, so she used public transportation to get to and from work, which could take up hours each day. While she has since returned to the office, many things have changed that make work more manageable for her.

"You've been able to attend your court hearing over Zoom," Simmons said. "You didn't have to go all the way to the court to file papers or sit in front of the judge, which means people don't have to spend the entire day waiting to be seen ... They could sit in the Zoom waiting room and do what they needed to do, and when they got called, they could appear before the judge for their five minutes, where before COVID you would still sit in front of the judge for five minutes but you were at the courthouse for hours."

'The world has opened up for disabled people'

Simmons, Griest Schwartzman and Blahovec all told TODAY that they had been able to expand their social circles, connect with friends and take part in other recreational activities amid the pandemic.

"The world has opened up for disabled people, truly open and connected," said Simmons. "... In the before times, I didn't go anywhere, I didn't do anything. I would want to go to dinner parties and even educational events and concerts and art exhibits, and then COVID hit, and people had to figure it out, and overnight, exhibits were offered virtually and people were live-steaming concerts. I'm like, 'Wait, this whole time, this is what you guys could have been doing?'"

Anna Pakman, who uses and wheelchair and lives in New York City, said that while she didn't go beyond her apartment building's hallway for more than two months at the start of the pandemic, things have opened up for her: She is participating in the Easterseals Disability Film Challenge, an annual filmmaking event, and has worked with collaborators to create an entire short film at home.

Anna Pakman directs a scene from her film "Social Fitness" over Zoom.Anna Pakman

"It was so much easier to make a film completely from home and work with collaborators over Zoom ... versus going out into the field, where a lot of locations are not accessible," said Pakman. "Shooting a film for a whole day can be difficult because you have to find an accessible bathroom, keep in mind the other types of accommodation you may need ... The fact that we're all at home meant that I was able to work with some incredible people I wouldn't be able to otherwise."

Blahovec said that she has taken Zoom cooking classes and has been able to expand her political and advocacy work.

"Being able to participate in things and not end up feeling really sick afterwards or really exhausted or in pain is really amazing for people with disabilities who often don't get to participate in these opportunities," Blahovec said.

Simmons said that she has also been able to appear on professional panels during the pandemic. Previously, those opportunities were limited due to difficulties traveling and finding accessible options.

Tiara Simmons said that she has been able to do more advocacy work and enjoy other social activities during the pandemic. Tiara Simmons

"I've sat on three or four panels since the pandemic hit, and I'm like, 'Wow, this is really nice.' I can actually do more with my advocacy and activism, because we're doing these things virtually," Simmons said. "... This is wonderful. But when we try to go back to what it was like before the pandemic, all of that is going to end."

Pakman said that she has also benefited from the digital release of filmed theater, like the Disney+ recording of "Hamilton" and has taken advantage of things like virtual museum exhibits.

"It gives access to people who, even in the before times, wouldn't have been able to go because of various barriers," Pakman said. "It's important that all of these resources continue."

'Dreading seeing things fall apart'

All sources interviewed for this story expressed concern that the end of the pandemic would mean the end of the online activities, virtual experiences and increased socialization that they had been able to take advantage of in the past year. Simmons noticed that while looking for jobs, many were remote but only for a few months.

"I don't have faith that all of these places of employment that offered virtual access or work from home are going to actually remain that way," Simmons said.

"I see friends excited that they got their first job because they're able to work from home, or they were able to go to college for the first time or finish their degrees, because it became virtual, even though they've been begging for these services or for this access for years," Simmons continued. "I feel so happy for them, and then I feel so sad, because I feel in my heart that we're not going to stick to this."

Griest Schwartzman, whose academic future is up in the air as they wait for more answers from their school, said that they are "very skeptical and dreading seeing things fall apart" as people move on from the pandemic. In addition to changes with school and social interaction, they are also worried about job searching and losing access to telemedicine, which has surged in popularity during the pandemic.

"I'm hoping I'm wrong, but after so many years of being denied accommodations and not believed, it's hard to have any faith that things will continue to be good," Griest Schwartzman said.