Non-disabled people are experiencing inaccessibility for the first time and they can’t deal; how do you think we have felt this whole time?


by Jo (Foderingham) Brown

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced non-disabled people to socialize almost exclusively via an internet connection. Suddenly, the IRL — “in real life” — world became inaccessible for people who have never experienced inaccessibility. But the world is still inaccessible for disabled and chronically ill folks. 

For the last three months in the United States, events have been live streamed and many people have been given the option to work from home. Disabled and chronically ill people have been asking for accessibility measures like these for years, but were told that they were simply impossible. Like clockwork, once non-disabled people were affected, remote opportunities became available.

As a member of the disabled community, let me just say, we been told y’all.

Online social interaction was easier or necessary for many of us before this pandemic shut down. The IRL spaces non-disabled people take for granted by being able to exist outside isn’t new. 

While the fear of getting sick has forced everyone to stay inside, disabled people are no stranger to keeping to our homes for days, weeks, or even months due to flare-ups. We are the originators of maintaining “socially distant” relationships. We’ve been conducting meetings via conference calls and hosting birthday parties over video chat; this isn’t a new phenomenon.

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Furthermore, the phrases “IRL” or “socially distant” are condescending. I am not “distant” from my friends simply because I am not in the same room as them; technology makes it possible to spend time with folks I am unable to physically hang out with every day. 

The lives I and other disabled people carry out online are no less “real” than the lives folks carry out by navigating what for us is an inaccessible world. Some people may consider losing their phones or laptops as mere annoyances; for me, it would mean being cut off from some of my closest friends and losing a tool that makes life infinitely more accessible.

It’s also annoying that the non-disabled population has treated online social interaction as a mere interlude which will become irrelevant post-COVID. Lately, several friends have ended our conversations with “I can’t wait to actually hang out with you!”, as if our communication is irrelevant simply because it’s held over the phone. Many people perceive Zoom hangouts and group chats as inferior to IRL interaction. Beyond being annoying, it’s also invalidating and low-key ableist.

Disabled people have been shut out of “IRL” social spaces for decades due to them being inaccessible. That “cozy” cafe you like? It doesn’t have enough room for wheelchairs to maneuver or for fat folks to comfortably sit down. Those two-hour-long community organizing meetings you like so much? They don’t take breaks, which can be a necessity for people with ADHD or anxiety. Do you get mad at people in coffee shops who make noise or repetitive movements? That makes people who stim or vocalize, such as autistic folks or people with Tourette’s, feel unwelcome. Do you love going to house parties? You probably haven’t noticed the stairs needed to get inside. 

Y’all haven’t noticed the ableism and inaccessibility in the spaces you frequent because we can’t even get in to point it out to you. As a result, we form our own social circles, often in the more accessible space that is the internet.

I have an anxiety disorder that flares up whenever I’m physically around other people. Often, it’s debilitating, leading to panic attacks that manifest in rapid, shallow breathing, stomachaches, and picking at my skin until it bleeds. IRL social situations make me feel shitty physically and mentally. I’d prefer to avoid them, for the most part.

With social media, I can preserve my mental health by doing a significant amount of my socializing without leaving the house. I’ve made many friends online through shared niche interests or mutual followers/friends. Since March 2019 — a year before the pandemic hit the U.S. — most of my socializing has been through group chats comprised of people I met on Twitter. I’ve had five-hour video calls with these folks and we stay up talking to each other until the wee hours of the morning almost every night. A few of us even have even camped out for hours in line for concerts together.

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My longest online friendship has been going strong for six years now. One friend I met on Tumblr has sent me a Snapchat every day at 4:20 PM for four years. Some of my internet friends live across the country (or the world) and we’ve never met in person; some of these friends live in the same area as me and we now hang out IRL. They are close friends and confidantes. These relationships are not a cheapened version of IRL ones — in fact, my internet friends probably know more about me than almost any of my IRL friends (and they definitely know how to make me laugh harder).

Online social tools are not inferior to the “IRL”; they are a necessary component of accessibility and intimacy. When we treat these online tools as less than, we do not realize their full potential. Further, when we treat online social interaction as less than, we forget about the people — often, multiply marginalized disabled people like me — who have adopted technology as our primary means of socializing for the sake of our health.

To be honest, it’s been vindicating to hear and see non-disabled people bemoan the loss of their social lives. They complain about wearing masks. They can’t wait to go back to their favorite club, even though it’s inaccessible to people who use mobility aids. Meanwhile, people who have been socializing like this for years are able to carry out our social lives overwhelmingly uninterrupted. 

Non-disabled people are experiencing inaccessibility for the first time and they can’t deal with it; how do you think the rest of us have felt this entire time?

Our methods of social interaction are perhaps stronger because we know how to be creative with our connections. They aren’t reliant on going to an inaccessible space. They aren’t about performance and they damn sure aren’t lesser. When I’m talking to friends in a group chat, I’m not sad that I’m at home and not at some (inaccessible) house party. Online social interaction is not only accessible, it’s also fun.

Jo (Foderingham) Brown (she/her/he/him) is a Black, queer, gender non-conforming woman from Georgia, currently living in DC. Common subjects of her work are misogynoir, Blackness, body politics, popular culture, and her Jamaican heritage.