Covid-19 Brings an Overdue Understanding of the Social Isolation Experienced by Many Americans with Disabilities

Man in wheelchair looking out of the window.

Adhering to social distancing and quarantine bubbles means the number of people we see in person has dramatically diminished: suddenly, everyone’s world is a much smaller place. 

For most Americans with disabilities, this “new normal” is not so new. Even though the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed 30 years ago, people with physical disabilities are still frequently stuck at home, as communities lackaccessible transportation for disabled individuals and workplaces are often unwilling to make individual accommodations. Even a vast number of restaurants, shops, and entertainment venues are inaccessible to wheelchair users. Gatherings with family and friends for a fun night out are fraught with unforeseen barriers. 

BraunAbility’s 2020 Drive for Inclusion Report Card, commissioned to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), found nearly 50% of the general population said they have a better understanding of the daily isolation that sometimes accompanies mobility restrictions since the C19 pandemic. Nearly 70% expressed having a greater willingness to accommodate others who have difficulties leaving their home due to a mobility challenge.

As everyone has severed connections and stayed physically distanced to survive during the pandemic, the world has gained a greater appreciation for the fundamental importance of proximity to those we trust. Social isolation occurs when you have little or no contact with other people and can be detrimental to one’s emotional, mental, and physical well-being. Although it is not the same as loneliness, social isolation can cause a person to be lonely. 

While social isolation is now affecting more people than ever, it is especially important for those with disabilities to protect themselves from its negative consequences.

It’s imperative to build a wide network of family, friends, volunteers, as well as paid professionals. 

With the pandemic, your existing social network may need reinforcement. People you depended upon in the past may be struggling with employment, health concerns, childcare, or other hardships. When circumstances change, so do relationships and the ways we are able to support each other. 

Making meaningful connections and building relationships takes time. Use these strategies to strengthen and/or build a social network. 

  • Thank the people in your network. Take the time to make the message sincere. If possible, send a handwritten note. Be specific about what the person means to you. 
  • Be aware of other’s time. When someone comes to visit, give them an easy out to leave. Don’t monopolize the conversations whether they are over the phone or in person. Be pro-active and initiate get-togethers. During the pandemic, discuss where you will meet in advance. Perhaps an apartment courtyard is a better spot than indoors. If in-person visits are impossible, try using technology that allows you to see one another—FaceTime or Zoom are good examples. 
  • Try to support your friend’s endeavors. If they love theatre, schedule a time to watch a play or musical together. 
  • If you can, volunteer. Investigate the volunteer opportunities in your community. Some tasks, such as fostering a kitten or making phone calls, do not require leaving your home. 
  • Increase your circle of acquaintances by joining a group. Even during a pandemic, people are gathering on Zoom for book clubs, art lessons, and Bible studies. 
  • Research local organizations to see how they might be able to assist you. Some communities offer free wheelchair accessible transportation to medical appointments. Organizations such as Meals on Wheels delivers food. 
  • Contact places of worship and civic groups and ask if they could assist you. Some might have volunteers who will pay you a visit or give you a daily phone call. 
  • Look to organizations that focus on particular illnesses or disabilities such as the Muscular Dystrophy Association for a list of resources in your area. 
  • If possible, get outside of your home and walk the neighborhood or read a book in a nearby park. A casual encounter could turn into a new friend. 
  • Look for people who are willing to help you on the Nextdoor app. The app recently added a Help Map where neighbors post their willingness to assist with errands such as shopping for groceries. They also added Nextdoor Groups where people can find others with similar interests such as Parents Group.  

The pandemic has given Americans a glimpse of what it is like to be socially isolated. There is no better time than now to become an advocate for social change. Contact your public officials and make them aware of physical barriers in your community. Network with organizations that recognize the negative impact of social isolation particularly for the disability community and work together to see social support initiatives are enhanced or created.

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