“It makes it so much easier when there are no barriers in the situation other than not being physically present,” he said.
The flourishing of accessibility is not universal: A 2016 survey by the Pew Research Center found that people with disabilities have less overall access to technology and also use it less. And while remote access has increased inclusion, it is paired with a plummeting of physical accessibility. Many of the people interviewed for this article said they miss seeing friends and attending in-person events as much as anyone else. Olivia Mahan, a wheelchair user in Pueblo, Colo., said that “overall, it’s been a narrowing of the things I can do.”
Transitioning to remote participation has been complicated for many people with invisible disabilities, whose needs have long been excluded from traditional accessibility guidelines. The surreal, alienating aspects of virtual communication are even more difficult for neurodivergent people, who may need more time and space for processing, said Héctor Ramírez, a disability activist with autism and a psychiatric disability.
“It has meant a lot of isolation, sometimes almost a feeling of delusion, for folks who are already feeling very much alone,” Mx. Ramírez said. “We struggle with making social connections, so the withdrawing is difficult.”
More Options, for Now
Some people are enjoying their newly digital lives precisely because their disabilities now go unnoticed. Andrew Johnson, who is blind, recently got a job as a contact tracer in Boston. Because the position is fully remote, and his new co-workers haven’t met him in person, none were initially aware of his visual impairment.
“It’s been cool to see people’s reaction to my work alone, without any confounding variables,” he said. At previous jobs, he often felt that colleagues qualified his performance as “pretty good for a blind person” and didn’t engage with him as they would a nondisabled person. Now, he said he gets a sense of satisfaction when his co-workers are surprised to learn that, despite different parameters, “I’m clearly able to do the same work.”