What you’re feeling is disability

A black and white sign in a shop window saying 'Sorry, we are closed'

In the news recently:

  • The mayor of a small town in Oklahoma issued orders that all shoppers had to wear face masks before entering shops or businesses. The order was repealed less than 24 hours later, after a deluge of verbal abuse and threats of physical violence against store employees. [1]
  • A security guard was murdered at a discount store outside Flint, Michigan after refusing a shopper entry for not wearing a face mask. [2]
  • A railway ticket officer in the UK died of covid19 after being intentionally spat upon by a member of the public. [3]

What’s inducing such violent tantrums and angry protests against covid19 stay-at-home orders and public safety measures? Why was there such a desperate, mad rush on KFC and McDonalds when New Zealand loosened the lockdown restrictions from Level 4 to Level 3 on Tuesday 28 April? What’s driving all this desperation and entitlement, this inability to self-regulate or practice impulse control?

The Great Lockdown has made everyday life feel less accessible for everyone.

People are feeling disempowered. During lockdown, tasks which once seemed trivially easy suddenly became more difficult, or even impossible. My partner and I found shopping at the supermarket to be an exhausting, traumatizing chore which now required special precautions and a lot of extra planning.

The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities [4] defines disability according to the Social Model, i.e. “it’s not the impairment that’s disabling in itself, it’s society’s lack of accommodations which is disabling”. In other words,

People are not inherently disabled, they become disabled when presented with barriers.

That’s what we’ve all been feeling over the last couple of months, a sense of disablement after life presented us with a set of new and unexpected barriers. There’s a great article in Forbes Magazine [5] which does a very good job of explaining how the Great Lockdown has essentially proven the Social Model of Disability.

Many organizations (including my own!) have risen to the challenge by making swift changes to meet the needs of customers and employees. Businesses have accommodated more of their employees to work from home, museums have put their collections online, universities have put their courses and educational resources online, and doctors and counsellors have begun conducting appointments over video calls. That’s fantastic. It’s made the world much more accessible at a time when we all needed the extra help.

At the same time, many folks with disability question why it took a worldwide pandemic which inflicted disability upon the “normals” before any of these accommodations were made. As one student whose whole university has gone online puts it, “I was told [putting film courses online] wasn’t ‘feasible’ […] I am so torn between being so grateful that I can get my education and […] feeling a bit betrayed that it was possible the whole time.” [6]

What can we do about this? Here are some ideas:

  • Realise that you are now getting a taste of the barriers which people with disabilities face in ordinary life.
  • Ensure that we don’t take away necessary accommodations once the lockdown is over.
  • Build on this newfound understanding to get curious about accessibility needs, and learn what else we can do to help employees and customers with disabilities.
  • Check out some of the amazing organizations out there which are working to improve accessibility for everyone like Accessibility Tick, or the Valuable 500, or your local member of the Global Business and Disability Network.


1. https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2020/05/03/stillwater-oklahoma-mask-order/

2. https://abc11.com/coronavirus-in-the-us-covid-19-update-news/6150389/

3. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/05/uk-railworker-dies-man-coronavirus-spat-200512123756554.html

4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Convention_on_the_Rights_of_Persons_with_Disabilities

5. https://www.forbes.com/sites/drnancydoyle/2020/04/29/we-have-been-disabled-how-the-pandemic-has-proven-the-social-model-of-disability/

6. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/20/covid-lockdown-opening-up-world-for-people-with-disabilities