Not all bubbles are created equal – reflections on Covid-19

Minnie shares her experiences of life through the Covid-19 lockdown so far, and ponders how we might embrace Possibility thinking to ensure that accessibility is designed in to all of society into the future.

Close up image of a bubble with a blurred out background of houses behind it and a reflection of a row of houses on the bubble

Hi, I’m Minnie. I set up Be. Lab (formerly Be. Accessible) – a social change agency – ten years ago with the goal of creating a 100% accessible New Zealand. I now run an accessibility design and innovation centre called the Global Centre of Possibility @AUT. I live in Auckland, I live alone… oh yes, and I am partially blind. So, my bubble consists of me and my cat Oscar, a self-proclaimed bubble aficionado!

I wanted to share some of my experiences during the Covid-19 lockdown as I felt this might add another perspective to the experiences other New Zealanders are having right now.

The reason I felt compelled to write this is because something happened recently that tipped me from feeling like I could manage, just, on my own – to feeling suddenly very frightened, powerless, and isolated.

Like most of us, I am heavily reliant on technology to work and communicate these days, however last weekend my computer had been telling me (it speaks to me via a Stephen Hawking-esque screen reader due to my eyesight) that my internet connection was unstable, so Zoom calls were beginning to pose a challenge.

Though frustrating, I felt I could probably improvise and get by when speaking to family and friends. But come Monday I had a work call with a couple of colleagues in Auckland and one in London – to discuss our new communications and marketing strategy of all things. By the end of that meeting my internet connection was so bad I was not able to hear a thing so I had to leave the meeting early and call it a day.

I would naturally have turned to my “smart” phone at this point however that too had given up the ghost over the weekend. Completely frozen, I could see calls coming in but could not answer them… And I could see text messages arriving but my screen reading software could not read them to me! Despite every attempt to do so, there seemed to be no way to turn my phone off or reset it.

I managed to send an email to my work IT support team who thankfully responded with a few suggestions for how to fix my phone at home alone with very poor eyesight and technical ability. However after an hour of struggling and feeling my anxiety sky rocket, the fourth attempt to fix it somehow resulted in me phoning 111 emergency services and having to explain to the surprised operator that I had accidentally called them while trying to reboot my smartphone, after which I was still embarrassingly unable to hang up the call as my phone wouldn’t let me do so.

So, as I sat there in my kitchen, I started to realise what a predicament I was actually in. How could I get help if I couldn’t phone or Zoom anyone? Being partially blind I do not own a car and drive, and all my neighbours live behind high gates with no chance of hearing me call out to them especially in the wild southerly we were experiencing. The only other member of my bubble was simply not up to scratch (pardon the pun) in providing IT support – or any other support really as he had yet again curled up in the back of the hot water cupboard.

I was now feeling extremely confused and totally overwhelmed, with the anxiety and confusion only exacerbating my ability to think clearly and problem solve.

AllI wanted and needed was for someone to come over to my house and help me. Usually not a lot to hope for, but during lockdown this is obviously not a given. It occurred to me that no one was coming - and that was a truly terrifying thought. I felt totally alone, isolated and completely powerless.

At the beginning of this lockdown, when the bubble concept was first proposed, it was made clear that your bubble was to be your household. A few days later it was also made clear-ish that if you were a single person living alone you could form a bubble with another single person who also lives alone.

At this point it became inescapably clear to me that all my friends who were ‘non-disabled’ lived in family units with cars and multiple forms of communication at their disposal, able to do grocery shopping, view multiple forms of media on multiple devices, etc. It also occurred to me that most of my single friends who lived alone were those with a disability or access need. They often did not drive, often did not have great tech support in their homes and certainly did not stand a chance of accessing groceries on their own.

I actually did try during the first week of lockdown to buy some groceries at my local supermarket before I finally gave up and surrendered as a “vulnerable person with a disability” when the experience resulted in me nearly toppling down some steep steps, being sprayed with disinfectant by what looked to me like a ninja warrior, and returning home with some unusually exotic goods that were definitely not on my shopping list! I won’t even get started on how impossible it was to navigate a trolley around other agitated and anxious Covid-19 customers… needless to say I would have been disqualified if on the road.

Now, it is critical to understand that people with access needs are not strangers to any of these situations in normal day to day life. I have struggled for years to buy groceries on my own, and to ensure I have adequate IT support. So as a community we are actually often very skilled problem solvers and used to operating in trying circumstances.

However, what I have noticed is the cumulative effect of issues when they compound, and Covid-19 is absolutely compounding challenges for access citizens – no matter how resilient, capable and positive we might be in ‘normal’ life. It is highlighting even more starkly the gaps in our society and community for those who have it all and those who do not – for those who fit and flourish and those who sit outside the norm that we consciously or unconsciously design society for.

Covid-19 is shining a light on many shortcomings in our society, and one of them is accessibility. We have failed to properly consider access in the Covid-19 lockdown and that is entirely understandable given the speed of this pandemic and the urgency with which we had to respond. We defaulted to a very old-fashioned way of responding by our access citizens by framing them as needy and vulnerable, not considering that the reason many of us are now feeling needy and vulnerable is because society had failed to embed accessible design from the very beginning. For decades, possibly centuries, we have failed to truly design access into all aspects of our lives – from health services to education to supermarkets.

In fact, if we are not designing access in to our products and services, we are actually designing it out. There is no neutral default position – the absence of accessible design guarantees there will be a barrier.

So how can we turn this around? How can we design access in and use Covid-19 to help us see the world afresh?

Let us not squander the time we have now to reimagine our world, and not only that, but actually stop making up excuses for not designing access in. Will all those “shovel ready” initiatives be 100% accessible? Will our supermarkets really go the extra mile and ensure that the people who struggle to access food now will be able to as we navigate our uncertain future world? Will transport be available to those who do not have cars of their own and who cannot drive for whatever reason?

Our society is not an equitable one. Could Covid-19 provide us with the impetus to forever change this, or will we decide it is just too hard as people move into survival mode as the global economy shrinks? Will we turn our backs on large groups of society who have so much to contribute but who are being relentlessly and tirelessly “disabled” by a lack of genuine caring, vision and brave leadership?

Right now, at the Centre of Possibility, we are working with a group of talented local and international access entrepreneurs in order to imagine and to create, a different future. We are drawing on the skills and talents of incredible designers, technologists, and social entrepreneurs to identify what could make our future inherently accessible for all.

Already right now in Aotearoa we have sign language avatars and technology that can read the thoughts of people who are unable to communicate. There is a gold mine of talent right at our fingertips to tap into – I invite you to join us to create this extraordinary future together.

--

The Global Centre of Possibility is a centre of innovation, learning, research and development into possibility for Aotearoa and the world. Find out more about its approach to design here.

Contact

Phone
+64 9 309 8966
Email
Centre of Possibility
@ AUT

Room WB239
WB Building
(The Seddon Building)
63 Wellesley St East
Auckland City

Mail
PO Box 78 021
Grey Lynn 1245
New Zealand