Disability, accessibility, and the end of the Long 20th Century

In supporting my wife’s graduate studies, I’ve come to learn of the concept of a “long century”, defined as a given century, plus the years immediately before and after it, in which the cultural and historical events are not truly separable from the century in question. For example, the Long 18th century is centered on the 1700s, but is generally considered to run from 1688 to 1815, with different dates being used depending on specific fields of study.

When historians of the future, if humanity survives that long, write about 2020, I think they will mark it as the end of the Long 20th century. The COVID-19 pandemic of this year was that final block of the Jenga tower that caused the already unstable edifice of the capitalist empire of the United States to come crashing down, and moved the world from the mindset of the 20th century into a new era in which humanity came to terms with a world that is more different from the one we’ve known than the 20th century, for all its radical changes, was from the 19th.

We are living through changes to how humans live that will resonate for generations to come. Obviously, there’s an urgent need for changes in order to survive rising temperature of the planet, but cities around the world are already making plans for changes to city life to account for the dangers presented by pandemics. We’ve long known that modern society, with its reliance on rapid global transit and the way so many of us live so close to each other, is vulnerable to communicable disease. During the second half of the 20th century, we got used to the idea that modern sanitation and modern medicine – vaccines in particular – would protect us from major outbreaks. Habitat destruction and the spread of humanity into new parts of the world are combining to bring us into contact with previously isolated animal populations, and consequently with diseases to which humans have not been previously exposed at any meaningful level. It may have been a century since the last pandemic of this kind, but it will not be another century before the next one.

The need to change how we live is now not just a necessity driven by climate change, but also by the more familiar fear of disease outbreaks.

With that need for change, comes opportunity. It’s commonplace for new construction to be used to meet needs not considered in the past. Plumbing and electricity are the default, where once they were new. Energy efficiency is now considered in the design and construction of all new buildings.

With the rising seas, cities are being designed to hold back the water, or to allow it to enter without causing real harm.

While I wish the changes to our lives were not being driven by such dire necessity, watching them happen, and doing what I can to help them along, is honestly something that gives me some measure of happiness. It’s a feeling of progress, opportunity, and hope.

There’s one opportunity, in particular, that I think we should be doing our best to take full advantage of. With so much that needs changing, and the need for a radically new approach to putting human wellbeing at the center of how we do things, accessibility should also be centered. There are grand visions of a cleaner, greener world, in which we lift everyone out of the needless poverty of the past, and compared to the scale of those visions, it should be an easy matter to ensure that with the shaping of this new world, it’s designed from the ground up to be wholly inclusive of all of humanity.

Most of the world has made considerable advances in accessibility, but most of the world also still has a long way to go.

It’s likely that, going forward, most of the world is going to be adopting mask-wearing as the default in day-to-day living. This is a good thing overall, but it presents a problem for folks who’re hearing-impaired and rely on lip-reading to aid in communication. Clear plastic visors can help with this problem, but they may not be as good as masks for preventing the spread of droplets from an infected person (though both is the safest option). To get around this problem, people have turned to masks with clear plastic panels sewn into them to make the mouth of the wearer visible.

For those who can’t read lips, or who have both impaired hearing and impaired vision, things like voice-to-text apps are becoming more widely available, which can, in turn, mesh with existing technology like the Braillenote – a machine that converts keystrokes into braille in real time as you type, and other similar devices.

Another big change to come from the pandemic was that many companies rapidly shifted to having their employees work from home. This makes sense, as no company wants to lose work time to a lockdown, or provide extra paid leave to employees who aren’t working. The problem, as many people with disabilities have pointed out, is that many of these companies have been claiming for years that working from home simply wasn’t possible, so disabled employees had to find ways to manage working in-office or navigate the treacherous waters of self employment. That so many companies were able to make the switch so quickly, when their majority-abled work forces required it, highlights a couple things. The first, which should not be surprising, is that most companies are happy to lie about what is or is not possible, particularly when doing so increases their control over their workers. The second is that the abled people have failed to stand in solidarity with our disabled colleagues. 2020 has reminded us that when we act together, we do, in fact, have the power to force change. If we want to save humanity from the climate instability we’ve caused, we will have to practice solidarity on a global scale like never before, and that requires that, to the best of our ability, we ensure that everyone’s needs are met. That includes building a system that is more just and equitable along the lines of race, gender, and sexuality, but it also requires that we do the same with regard to disability.

There are laws like the ADA that have done a huge amount to expand accessibility (thanks to the efforts of advocates working to ensure compliance), but as with other areas of discrimination, unscrupulous corporations cannot be relied on to do right by their employees, and relying solely on the legislative and legal processes seems insufficient to me. Solidarity and collective action are a must on this, as with everything else.

The move to  a much larger “remote” work force has also caused a boom in the use of various Orwellian methods of surveillance as companies try to maintain the same level of direct control and micro-management of their employees as they have on-site. It seems pretty clear that this lack of trust is encouraged by the employer/employee power dynamic of capitalism. The products of an employee’s labor all belong to the employer, and many employers seem to view their workers as wage slaves, belonging entirely to the employer for the period of time that’s paid for. During that time, the employees do not belong to themselves, but to the company. It’s easy to maintain that dynamic in a centralized location where managers can provide direct oversight, but when workers are operating remotely, it’s both harder to maintain, and more intrusive to try.

Unfortunately, this level of micro-management is also something that people with disabilities often have to deal with. To begin with, there’s the degree to which those who need financial assistance in meeting their medical needs find themselves subjected to enforced poverty, and even have their relationships effectively regulated by the government. Make too much money, and you lose your support, even though you don’t make enough to pay for everything yourself. Get married, and you might also lose your support. The problem goes beyond that though, with insurance corporations monitoring the lives of people like patients with sleep apnea through the CPAP machines they use to allow them to sleep, as a way to try to force more costs onto the patients.

Capitalism has always been a joint venture between the capitalist class and the government, not unlike the feudal system from which capitalism was born. As we enter this new chapter in human history, we will need to remake almost every aspect of our lives. In discussing that, the focus has largely been on the material changes to our day to day existence, but I think that’s more of a distraction than anything. Responding to climate change means improving standards of living across the board, and should mean keeping most or all of the modern marvels that have improved life for so many. What really needs to be remade is every aspect of how our lives are governed, and how we relate to the rest of the planet. In doing that, we will also gain the ability to reshape our material conditions in the ways that are needed.

In doing that, we must ensure that we do not leave anyone behind.

Despite everything happening in the world right now, life goes on, and I’m still required to spend money in order to live. My work is supported by a group of wonderful people over at patreon.com/oceanoxia, and I would be immeasurably grateful if you would consider joining their ranks. How much you give, and for how long are entirely under your control, and every little bit helps a great deal, as my household is very short on money right now. Thank you for reading, and take care of yourselves.

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