Ellen Renton shares with us how Covid-19 has affected her upcoming tour and how the present pandemic has exposed the widening gap between the disabled and the non-disabled.
With the support of Unlimited and Creative Scotland, I was due to take my one-woman poetry show Within Sight on a tour around theatres in Scotland this Spring. Shortly after we began the tour, however, things were called to a halt by the outbreak of Covid-19. It’s a show about the Paralympics, running, and ableism, and much like the Paralympics itself, we are now hoping to reschedule the tour for 2021. It’s hard not to wonder what the world might look like in a year’s time in light of the pandemic, particularly in relation to issues of ableism. This crisis has held up a mirror to societal inequalities of all kinds, and it feels as though the daily outpouring of news has been punctuated with ableist attitudes and callous treatment of the disabled. By the time Within Sight returns to a stage, will its audiences have gained a new perspective on ableism and the social model?
Ableism has pervaded every stage of this pandemic. Along with the elderly, disabled lives have been as good as branded dispensable by the rhetoric surrounding the treatment of vulnerable people. This apparent placing of greater value on able bodies has been confirmed by countless stories, including several reports of hospitals around the world being encouraged to prioritise younger and ‘fitter’ lives over others.
Othering has also been rife in the language surrounding the virus. Information on Covid-19 is rarely directly addressed to those who are most at risk. Instead we are told that the general ‘we’ might know people who need extra help, and should bravely sacrifice our liberties in order to protect a faceless, nameless, vulnerable minority.
This has created a division between the disabled and non-disabled which continues to be exacerbated by the reckless complacency shown by those who ‘would only get a mild cold if they caught the virus.’ Thankfully it feels as though that attitude has been less widespread more recently, but the fact of its existence in the first place points to a disregard towards those who are most at risk.
A perhaps less direct, but equally stinging example, is the sudden provision of accessible resources that were never previously available. Large scale mechanisms to support working from home, for instance, might have transformed the lives of disabled people and encouraged more diverse workplaces, had they been implemented for this purpose long ago. It’s brilliant that these systems have now been put in place, thus protecting the wellbeing and financial security of millions of people during this crisis, but for the many who have been denied this opportunity in the past, the advent of these measures does have a bittersweet taste.
In general, there has been a momentous shift in terms of how work and productivity are discussed. From every angle we are now being told by earnest journalists and influencers that we shouldn’t feel under pressure to write a novel, or learn a language, and that we should adapt to being content in isolation without aiming for goals or pushing for deadlines. While this is a fair statement, and potentially helpful to some, it confirms that this is definitely not the case under normal circumstances, when it would be frowned upon not to engage with the rules of a productivity-driven society that actively disadvantages disabled people.
Spending time at home has also made me confront my own internalised ableism, and helped me understand further the true nature of the social model of disability. An unexpected consequence of being in isolation revealed itself when I first experienced difficulty sleeping. It occurred to me that usually, I fall asleep at the point when my eyes can no longer stay open, so exhausted from the day. However, being at home, working the way that I want to in an environment that I understand and feel comfortable in, I have been unable to reach that point. This has made me consider how I might live life differently beyond Covid-19. Is it possible that I have been trying to fit my own needs around how the rest of the world is operating, rather than keeping my individual needs central to the decisions that I make?
It is impossible to say that Covid-19 could have any positive outcomes. The virus has claimed tens of thousands of lives, and devastatingly, will continue to do so, with the most marginalised groups being the worst affected. I do think, though, that at the very least, we can hope for some change to come about as a result. It might seem like a fairly insignificant issue now, but I hope that employers come to see the worth and viability of working from home, and that this remains an option for those who need it to support themselves. I hope we might learn to appreciate the value of an individual based on more than what they have achieved and the number of hours for which their body allows them to work. And it might be wishful, but I really hope that a greater understanding and kindness emerges. I would like to think that the next time I perform Within Sight, whenever that may be, that the audience might come to it with a basic knowledge of what ableism is, having seen its true nature exposed during this crisis. Maybe they’ll be able to understand the changes that still need to come in practical terms. Maybe I’ll perform it differently too, with my own refreshed understanding and self-awareness of ableism – the realisation of how easy it is to buy into.