On Access in a Virtual Space: Lessons from Life in a Pandemic

by Joanne Stirrup, Product Specialist


From Zoom fatigue to spotty internet service to awkward Breakout rooms, it’s understandably hard to love online school in a pandemic. And that’s likely because many of us find it inaccessible- it can be harder to learn, meet deadlines, and connect with others in this virtual space. And it all happened so quickly: overnight, the world we knew disappeared; and Zoom became our new classrooms, offices, gyms, and cafes.


The speed at which Zoom filled this need, however, exposes a reality that disabled people have always known. As much as we try to signal otherwise, our ableism is everywhere, and it’s showing. Many disabled people have spent years advocating for this type of virtual access, but our society has ignored each call for justice because of logistical, financial, or social excuses. But when able-bodied existence is threatened, access arrives overnight.


So as the world closed for many, opportunities to connect seemed to grow for many disabled people whose experiences in physical spaces are often characterized by broken elevators, slippery floors, and ableist attitudes. While we yearn for the “normalcy” of life again, we have to remember what that normalcy means for so many individuals. I can’t wait for the day that the last COVID case turns negative, but I hope that we never forget the lessons we learned— especially about access.


These lessons reveal a great amount about the danger in ubiquitous solutions. In a world that is characterized by a spectrum of diverse existences, there is no one-feature-fits-all for access. While Zoom satisfies one person’s needs, it is another person’s nightmare. Our situation requires what the Disability Studies field deems “universal design,” an ideology that calls for the creation of spaces that meet the needs of all bodies from the start and at the same time. In this type of dynamic design, individuals incorporate the input of diverse groups of people whose lived experiences guide the architecture. It is design for all, design that is willing to flex as we do.


When we prioritize access, we create a space to build community. And in this community, we are urged to listen to and respect each other’s needs so that we can collaborate as we shape physical, virtual, public, and private spaces to best support us.