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Lessons from Lockdown – building a better “new normal”

To celebrate launching the Whizz-Kidz Business Alliance, a membership scheme for companies who want to champion young wheelchair users and build a more inclusive society, we hosted a virtual event “Lessons from Lockdown”, which was hosted by BAFTA-nominee and Whizz-Kidz patron, Ruth Madeley, and featured leaders from the business world who discussed how we can move towards a more inclusive future post Covid-19

Whizz Kidz Team
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Whizz Kidz Team

Lockdown provided opportunities for society to become more inclusive; we saw businesses adapt to offer flexible working, schools and colleges offering blended learning, theatres offered the best seat in the house from the comfort of your living room, and art galleries around the world provided free, virtual tours.

Now, more than ever, we are excited to build a more inclusive society by working together with our Business Alliance members.

Following our launch, we want to share with you our Top 5 Lessons from Lockdown to help push for a more accessible new normal:

1. Businesses have the potential to be more accessible than they think

It’s no news that businesses have had to adapt significantly in the light of the Covid-19 pandemic.  Staff are working remotely and more flexibly, and new ways of working have emerged. For many of us, this was welcomed with open arms as the distance between bed and desk was much, much shorter. But for the disabled community this highlighted an important question: ‘Why haven’t things always been this way?’ The opportunity to work from home means inaccessible commutes, medical appointments and additional equipment are not barriers to employment, but rather adjustments which can be easily worked around.

David Thomas, CEO of Barratts Developments, shared with us his experience of adapting to this revolution. He said decisiveness and communication were key factors in the organisation’s strong adaptability, and spoke of how positive it was that these accessible changes came on in a short amount of time.

“What we're seeing is a change taking place very rapidly, that previously could have taken a decade or longer. So I do believe this is a huge opportunity in terms of businesses being more accessible to people…”

It just goes to show that businesses have always had the potential to become more accessible than they would have thought. Accessibility has always been and always will be a necessity. Despite the fact that it was a global pandemic which forced these changes, it is a step in the right direction.

2. Disabled people are some of the most courageous people you will ever meet

James Ellery-Gower, Senior Manager at EY, spoke about the discourse around fear and vulnerability concerning how people speak about the Covid-19 pandemic, particularly when it comes to disabled people.

Over the last year, disability has been spoken about as if it’s a weakness – as something which needs to be overcome, or mitigated.  When in actuality, people are disabled because the world is built for non-disabled people. This Social Model of disability argues just this - that people are disabled by barriers in society such as physical barriers, like buildings not having accessible toilets, or by people’s attitudes to difference. Removing these barriers creates equality and offers disabled people more independence, choice and control.” (https://www.scope.org.uk/about-us/social-model-of-disability/)

“I like to use the phrase “courageously vulnerable” when describing disability. We, as the disabled community, know what we need, and our firms and our societies should be working together to ensure everyone feels like they belong, whether that's in a virtual world or anywhere else.”

“It’s important to remember that the disabled experience of lockdown is varied, whether wheelchair users decide to isolate for their health, or feel comfortable going for a wheel in the park with a friend. No one can understand this experience better than individual wheelchair users themselves, so we need to provide a platform for disabled voices and listen in order to allow for real change for the disabled community in these challenging times.”

3. It’s time for public venues to reconsider accessibility year-round – not just in a pandemic

It’s not just the virtual world which has gone through a huge change. The world around us – our local communities, shops, restaurants, cinemas and even the built environment around us – have changed the way we visit public spaces. For wheelchair users, these changes have presented challenges as well as opportunities.

Hannah, a member of the Whizz-Kidz Kidz Board, spoke about some of these positive changes:

“Everything is more spaced out so, as a wheelchair user, you are not getting pushed by anyone and there’s space to roll around anywhere. Going out with my friends isn't as much of a problem as it used to be…. Things are more accessible, especially when ordering food or drinks. You can use your phone, whereas before this wasn't even an idea…”

4. Accessibility should not be an after-thought or compromised.

As positive as some of the recent changes s have been, accessibility has largely remained an after-thought in many public areas. Disabled parking spaces were cornered off to make space for social distancing queues, disabled seating removed and accessible entrances used as one-way-system exits, leaving wheelchair users with no way to access venues.

Of course, these measures were ultimately put in place to ensure the safety of everyone visiting. But this is where we learn that accessibility should not be an after-thought, or even ignored. Disabled people are vital customers, and go to supermarkets, restaurants and shops just as non-disabled people do. Organisations are missing out on the business of disabled consumers due to poor accessibility (both physical and digital) and not being disability confident in their customer services approach.

Ruth Madeley, Whizz-Kidz Patron and BAFTA nominated actress, spoke about her experiences:

“I think it's a knee jerk reaction isn't it and then they panic and then they don't think about the impact that has on the disabled customer.”

5. One step your business can take? Join the Whizz-Kidz Business Alliance

There’s no doubt that this year has been challenging for charities and this means that there is a huge need for businesses to support them. Of course, supporting charities now doesn’t look like what we’re used to: no office bake sales, mass gathering events or team sponsored challenges. But many businesses have been coming up with new and creative ways to raise funds for causes and overcome the challenges presented to them during 2020.

Millie Hawes, Senior Corporate Responsibility Executive for Fieldfisher talked to us about how Corporate Responsibility has changed:

“There’s a great need for it [Corporate Responsibility] at the moment. 2020 has brought the barriers in society into sharp focus and it’s allowed us to really think creatively about how we develop our community partnerships, whether it be through fundraising, community volunteering, awareness-raising, or sustainability initiatives. Suddenly, you’re forced to think ‘okay, how can we adapt in this new way of doing things to make sure that what we do has tangible impact?’ It's about starting a conversation, then acting on it.”

One simple action you and your business can take to ensure that our new normal is more accessible than the old is to join the Whizz-Kidz Business Alliance. Our brand new membership scheme provides companies with an opportunity to join a network of like-minded businesses committed to championing young wheelchair users and building a more inclusive society. By joining you will have opportunities to improve your Diversity and Inclusion credentials and build on these Lessons from Lockdown to ensure that barriers are removed and that your business is open and accessible to everybody.

To find out more visit www.whizz-kidz.org.uk/businessalliance

So as we take these learnings forward and start the transition into what will hopefully be a better 12 months ahead, is imperative that disabled people are part of the conversation around accessibility, and that people continue to educate themselves. “Nothing about us, without us” is a phrase which was used throughout disability activism in the 1990s, when the Disability Discrimination Act (now part of the Equalities Act) became legislation, here in the UK.

Sadly, the phrase still remains relevant to this day. But we believe that if we work together to raise awareness about the barriers young wheelchair users face, and how we can remove them, that we can look forward to a better, and more accessible, new normal. By joining the Whizz-Kidz Business Alliance, you can help us do this