By Rania Abi Rafeh
On a regular day, before the pandemic, walking the streets of NYC with my physical disability felt like a high stakes video game. My right foot took the lead with a swift crooked step forward while my left leg scraped the pavement behind to catch up. Step, beat, step, beat, step. My eyes darted from the noise of my shoes to the faces blurring past me. I could feel a slight breeze on my skin from each body skimming past me while hearing the plomp, plomp, plomp of feet behind me, so my right leg took bigger steps making my knee jut out even more to get ahead. In turn, my brown hair bounced around my face as my arched back puffed out my chest like a sail, while my hips turned in, causing my knees to want to kiss. I continued to dodge passerby as though I were Mario eluding a walking mushroom.
COVID-19 has created an environment where everyone is at a disadvantage, not just the disabled community. Only after seeing how the entire world has been impaired by a pandemic am I able to feel as though I am on the same playing field as an able-bodied person.
The city’s foot traffic during the pandemic is sparse to nonexistent, depending on the area. Seeing the bare streets was jarring at first—I wouldn’t have been surprised to see tumbleweed rolling out of nowhere—but I came to appreciate the quietness. I usually try to match the pace of people walking in all directions, but the pandemic allows me to walk the streets at my own pace. In turn, I enjoy the walks I take. For once, my feet don’t feel as rushed, and my shoulders are not pointy with tension—a refreshing feeling to have when moving one’s body takes significant effort.
Having to quarantine and stay indoors has taken the pressure off of traveling in the city—an overwhelming task to do if you are physically disabled. The New York Times states that New York City’s subways are insufficiently accessible: “Only about a quarter of 472 stations in the city have elevators—one of the lowest percentages of any major transit.” If I were counting on using the MTA’s other service, Access-A-Ride, I’d constantly be waiting, my schedule built around that of the car service. Zoom makes it easier for me to meet up with others, allowing me to be there without physically being present. Though I recognize that these circumstances are not realistically permanent, the transportation options available to me and the rest of the disabled community in a COVID-free world are similarly impractical.
I have found a silver lining in the pandemic with regards to my walking disability. However, this shift in the playing field reminds me of society’s long-standing disregard of the disabled community’s right to access. For years, the disabled community has missed out on specific aspects of living due to inadequate accessibility. Only with society’s current embrace of virtual life have the tables turned. Disabled people are now able to effectively participate in work and socialize from their own homes. While able-bodied people are upset about reduced mobility or the challenges of working remotely, many disabled people already faced these obstacles on a daily basis. The very fact that an individual with a physical disability, such as myself, can achieve an accessible lifestyle because of the pandemic exposes the reality that our current society is not designed with minority groups in mind. Yet, by calling out the limitations that seek to negate our existence, we can start to fix the inequality society has created.