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It only took a pandemic to feel like me

By Haneul Lee

This past year has allowed for much needed improvements in the realm of accessibility. Our columnist Haneul Lee reflects on the opportunities that the pandemic has created for her. 

As a student who has had multiple permanent disabilities all my life, and one who is attending one of the oldest universities in Scotland, you can imagine there’d be quite a few limits when it comes to accessibility. However, this past year has been fascinating, because I have seen the potential that the world has for accessibility and how it can improve in the future. And although it’s already mid-March, it’s never too late to look back at the past year and reflect on change and growth, which is how this article came to be.

The truth is, I have only really gotten this far thanks to the people I surround myself with and the compassionate strangers I’ve met along the way. Up until recently, this was a fact that burdened me: how can I create an identity of my own when I can’t even dream of doing things other people can? It is a cold, hard fact – I cannot travel the world with just a backpack slung on my shoulder. I cannot walk out the door with just my phone in my hand and wallet tucked into my jean pocket. Everything requires immense planning, assistance, and comes with a million obstacles. My definition of “independent” has and always will be different from others.

During the pandemic, everything changed. Some people have gone through the worst days of their lives: losing their jobs, their homes, or their loved ones. Mental health stability has gone down, domestic abuse rates have gone up. Governments have been saying something one day, backtracking the next. Many are in limbo and people are, perhaps, more divided than ever.

It feels very insensitive to say that I’ve been feeling the most “me” I’ve ever felt during all this.

Accessibility has improved significantly during the pandemic – something I know many other people agree with, disabled or otherwise (though this is, of course, a vast generalisation). During a meeting with my seminar students as a class representative, my able-bodied fellows have reported that they have never been happier with the accessible options the university has provided them. All the readings and books are available when we need them. Classes are accessible anywhere and at any time. No more navigating dodgy lifts and narrow, under-construction pavements.

This increased support should certainly have come sooner. It should not have taken a pandemic for these changes to be enacted; it should not have taken the needs of able-bodied people for society to become more accessible. (Hailie Pentleton’s article is excellent if you would like to read more on this topic). But it was still a change that came at a time when I very much needed it. My mental health and attitude to life, in general, had been very low, especially as a disabled first year who had been told “it gets better” during high school and had started university with a hopeful mindset. But Freshers’ Week was very inaccessible for me, and my flatmates were the complete opposite of who I was, which was no one’s fault but an awkward situation to be in. The university had adapted the flat to accommodate my disability, so I didn’t dare to ask for a transfer. I felt very isolated even during a pre-pandemic society, and it was during this period that I asked myself: “Does it get better?”

It’s somewhat ironic that it did get better… during a pandemic.

As everything is online, all the resources are uploaded and within reach. No more awkward interactions with strangers asking them to reach for the shelves in the library (shoutout to social anxiety). It almost seems like an out-of-body experience how much I’ve changed during seminars and lectures. I can sit a little straighter, speak a little louder all because I don’t feel self-conscious about my physical state. 

Thus, I feel a slight dread when I think about returning back to on-campus university. Perhaps it’s impostor syndrome: I worry that this self-assured, autonomous version of me will crack when I return back to my wheelchair to zoom around with on-campus. Online, people only see half of you (both figuratively and literally) and while I’m all for body confidence, clearly, I still have a long way to go before I learn to love my own disabled body.But when I see the little Zoom version of me on the screen while I speak, I feel a weird sense of pride at how far I’ve come over the past year. I’ve applied and been accepted to do a virtual internship that would’ve been in-person and inaccessible otherwise, I’ve volunteered to take part in many extracurriculars and society roles (like being a columnist at The Glasgow Guardian, for example, something I would never have even dared to apply for before). Yes, I’ve seen the potential of an accessible world over the past year, but I’ve also seen potential in myself. In a time where the world has supposedly stopped, I would like to tell the Haneul of the past: life goes on.


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