By Russell Lehmann
Due to COVID-19, our world has been turned upside down. Restaurants once full of lively conversation now sit empty and desolate. Schools are vacant, our educational centers now in the hands of parents and the students themselves. Sporting arenas are dark and silent, a surreal scene for many as sports has historically been our main outlet as a society during times of uncertainty.
Social distancing has now become the new normal, and while it is vital that we isolate ourselves physically, it is imperative that we do not do the same emotionally, for the cornerstone of any healthy society is human connection, a need intrinsic to each and every one of us.
While we have all been hit hard during these times, the disability community has been especially affected. The largest minority group in the world once looked to socializing with their peers as a refuge from their daily struggles, and with this less and less possible these days, are now seeing their mental health and well-being deteriorate.
Much of our emotional needs, as well as our professional obligations, are attempting to be met through online activities such as zoom and webinars. During these strange times, it is now more important than ever to raise awareness about the accessibility of these meetings for individuals with disabilities in order to ensure that no one is left behind as we all attempt to navigate uncharted territory.
As a motivational speaker with a platform of autism and mental health, many of my meetings as of late have been conducted on platforms such as Zoom. In the following paragraphs, I will highlight various ways to promote inclusion and accessibility for those with autism and mental health struggles.
Having autism, I very much appreciate it when agendas and materials are sent out ahead of time, so I know what to expect during the meeting. Having all informational resources that are dispersed be universally accessible is a must, especially for those with dual diagnoses and multiple disabilities. It is also helpful for all participants that any materials are written succinctly without needless words and/or jargon.
Some individuals on the spectrum also benefit from practicing the meeting ahead of time with the host to make sure no question or concern regarding the technicalities of the meeting go unaddressed. During the meetings, it is crucial that each participant limit any background noise to not cause any sensory overload. It is also important to only have one person speak at a time while all others who are listening have their microphones on mute. Features such as “raise hand” or a chat box will help the discussion run smoothly without participants talking over one another.
The host or moderator should introduce all participants before the meeting starts and remind them to state their name before speaking. Running the meeting according to the agenda and in an efficient manner lessens the chance of an individual on the spectrum becoming overwhelmed when things don’t go according to plan.
For webinars, avoid excess pictures and visual content that distract from the main point of the topic while also using plain language for those with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities. Captioning should be available on all video meetings and webinars in case a participant needs to mute all audio if it becomes too stimulating. Recording presentations and meetings is also imperative for those who need to access the content again in order to process all the information.
As individuals with autism are at a much higher rate of having mental health diagnoses, it is necessary for the host and all participants to be mindful of invisible disabilities. Along with autism I also have diagnoses of bipolar, panic disorder and OCD, to name a few, and these struggles sometimes lead me to having to cancel my participation of a meeting at the last minute. This is another reason why recording all online gatherings for later viewing is vital. I can tell you, from personal experience, that there is no greater antidote to the guilt I feel when my struggles force me to cancel a meeting than the understanding, support and well wishes I receive from my fellow participants.
As we all continue to find our footing during this time of collective struggle, it is incumbent upon us to remember to continue to look out for one another after COVID passes. If it is two things this world lacks, it’s compassion and understanding. Let’s make sure these times serve as a lasting reminder that we are all in this together, and that the key to a more fruitful and fulfilling future for us all comes down to one word: accommodation.