What the disability rights movement and universal design can teach us about business and life in the age of COVID-19

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The now tired tagline, “we’re all in this together,” may forever owe the COVID-19 pandemic for its fame, but it’s far from being a novel concept. Unfortunately, it sounds all too familiar because it’s the same sentiment the disability community has espoused for decades, long before COVID-19 made it cliché. So, what have we learned as a society now that eluded our grasp previously? Let’s start to look forward by first looking back.

When disability rights movement activists of the 1950s and 1960s began working to eliminate structural barriers to equal access, simple innovations like ramps and curb cuts became both proverbial and tangible calling cards. The activists saw these devices in a visionary, ahead-of-the-curve context. The devices were not just structural modifications made to accommodate a needy few. Rather, they were all-serving environmental changes that made navigation easier for everyone.

From here, the social model of disability was born. In short, it dared to suggest that individuals weren’t limited by inherent “disabilities” (i.e. the medical model of disability). Instead, inaccessible environments did the limiting and disabling. Extending this logic meant that anyone could experience disability at any time, so everyone had a stake in promoting accessibility. Many of us outside the disability community have been slow to embrace this perspective — at least until the COVID-19 pandemic made it in our best interests to do so.

Within days of global lockdowns, many of us encountered inaccessibility for the first time. We were suddenly immobilized, cut off from accessing our daily routines and broader lives. What if our society had responded to our newfound “disabilities” with the all too common medical model of disability? Imagine hearing something to the effect of, “You are all now individually ‘disabled’ with your own, inherent crosses to bear. Good luck!” Similarly, for any fans of “The Hunger Games” books and movies, imagine a response akin to the series’ signature refrain, “May the odds be ever in your favor.”

Thankfully, our society responded differently by rapidly deploying a social model of disability. It tackled inaccessible environments as disabling in themselves rather than seeing its citizens as hopelessly and inherently “disabled” through a textbook, medical lens. Remote solutions for work, school, church, fitness classes, concerts, museum visits, moviegoing and even game nights appeared out of the proverbial woodwork. Entirely new business models dedicated to home delivery services and conveniences sprung up almost overnight to accommodate a newly homebound consumer base. We all welcomed these solutions, but those of us with longer, more permanent tenures in the disability community couldn’t help but chuckle and offer an “It’s about time” — to put things mildly.

Take remote work as just one illustrative example. It has become a staple of our working lives and is likely here to stay. Talented and motivated individuals with disabilities have long sought increased remote work options as solutions to the unique challenges they face in getting to and from office buildings independently. Far too many of these individuals have been overlooked and sidelined on the premise that remote work wasn’t feasible in many companies as recently as February of this year. Imagine the validity of that argument now, just five short months later.

The way forward is this: People with disabilities have often had to live ahead of the proverbial curve out of necessity. Want to arrive at something innovative that will reach the broadest scope of possible customers? Try beginning your designs of environments, products and processes by considering the needs of people with disabilities at the outset. This simple change in perspective will yield better, more user-friendly outcomes for all.

Architect Ronald Mace coined the term “universal design” to describe this approach. In Mace’s own words, it involves “the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.” In essence, it’s the “we’re all in this together” approach to business and life before COVID-19 made it mainstream.

I know we’re all eager to abandon all things pandemic, but a newfound appreciation for the social model of disability and universal design will be worth holding on to. Something tells me we’re ready to grasp it this time.

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