A tactile sign on Exhibition Street, Melbourne.

News Articles and analysis

Living through touch in the age of Corona

Olivia Muscat - A woman in a colourful shirt and blue overalls sitting in the sun

by Olivia Muscat

This story is part of the My Corona series. In the coming weeks, we’ll publish more personal stories about the pandemic, life in isolation and Victorians’ hopes and fears for the future.  

 

I think a lot of people would agree that lockdown is one of the strangest collective experiences they’ve ever been through. And while individuals may have been able to take some positives from being at home, I’m sure it isn’t something that most people are eager to go through again.

As the restrictions are lifted and we’re allowed (with caution and physical distancing) to see our friends and go out to eat, I find myself feeling very much still in the midst of it all. It will be a long time before I, and many other disabled people, feel that we can get out and live our lives as we did before Covid.

As keen as I am to get myself back into the world – slowly and carefully, of course – as a blind person it’s much easier said than done. I find myself full of fear, having lost so much of my independence. Before lockdown my life consisted of something different nearly every day, often travelling on public transport, meeting new people, going to places I’d never been before.

That means I touch a lot of stuff. A lot of stuff. Sometimes I need to, like when I’m holding a stair rail for balance, when I’m at a café I’ve never been to before, when I’m looking for something. Sometimes I touch without thinking, to explore a cool texture on a wall or have a look at something interesting in a shop. Sometimes it’s unintentional: I accidentally brush up against and put my hand on loads of things, and often those things are really gross – I’ve gotten up close and personal with more than my fair share of bins.

I also unintentionally come into contact with complete strangers all the time. When I’m reaching for something and they move in front of me at the wrong moment. Or, much more frustratingly, when people decide they absolutely must help me (interfere) without my consent and grab my arms or hands, because they are certain that I couldn’t possibly have any idea where I’m going and I must be lost. This is not on at the best of times, and I don’t see people refraining from doing it just because of a little thing like required physical distancing.

 

A train station platform, a sign reading 'lift to exit' with wheelchair accessibility symbol

Many blind people or people with a vision impairment must touch public infrastructure to travel.

 

In my regular life I try not to be concerned about germs too much. I carry hand sanitiser and wipes with me basically everywhere I go and wash my hands when it makes sense. But it would be unfeasible to do so every time my hands come into contact with something foreign. For a blind person, being unable to deal with the thought of germs would be debilitating.

But the thought of getting Covid-19 or of putting somebody else at risk is not to be taken lightly. So I feel it will be a good long while before it’s safe for me to be out in public by myself.

Olivia's guide dog Jemima, a labrador looking directly into the camera

I also have a guide dog, who doesn’t understand the requirements for physical distancing and the danger of germs (she would eat somebody’s dirty tissue given half a chance). Between us I can’t see when I’m too close to somebody and she doesn’t know she has to keep at least 1.5 meters away from humans.

One of her favourite tricks when we’re walking along a street or corridor is to walk us right through the middle of conversations, instead of around the group of people. While it isn’t the most professional guide dog thing she does, it used to give me a private giggle.Now the thought of it makes me very uncomfortable. And I can’t prevent it as there’s no way to know when something like that is going to happen.

Many people also forget their common sense around dogs. Even at the peak of isolation, when I was just walking her around the block, people would come up way too close to talk to me or try to bring their dogs to say hello. I was not, and am not, ok with that.

I really love being able to get out and do my own thing, but all of this means that I am very unlikely to go out alone, and I don’t have people at my beck and call to guide me. Which means my lockdown is essentially ongoing, for a few months at least.

For a blind person, being unable to deal with the thought of germs would be debilitating.

I am not alone in this situation. I know many disabled people whose lockdown is not ending any time soon, whether for reasons similar or different to my own. It is extremely frustrating and the uncertainty is scary. Life with a disability already takes so much forethought and planning, and this will make it even more laborious to do what we want and need to do.

So when non-disabled people feel their lives are pretty much back to normal and they’re doing everything they missed during lockdown, disabled people will most likely still be living with a lot of restrictions. Not by choice, but by necessity.

Thankfully, one of the side effects of a worldwide lockdown is that many events have become available online. It is my greatest hope, as the world attempts to right itself, that non-disabled people don’t forget about those of us who will remain at home much longer. And many of us would benefit from accessible online events not just in the short term, but forever.

Once people are able to have an audience or meet in the same room, I hope that event organisers continue to provide streaming or conference call options. We should take this positive thing that has come out of this terrible, stressful time and use it to make our world more accessible. There is still a long long way to go, but a lot of organisations now have truly no excuse for excluding disabled people and I want to see them take hold of that and use it as a step forward.

Like everyone, I’ve learned a lot about myself during isolation. I’ve also learned a lot about what a post-lockdown world should look like. For me and many others it’s not as simple as cautiously going back to the way things were before. My life will involve even more thought and planning than ever, to allow me the level of independence I want and need. Only time will tell if the world is ready to make something good out of something awful, creating the accessible spaces and opportunities that disabled people have long been fighting for.

 

Olivia Muscat’s writing about art and disability has appeared in Witness Performance, Time Out and Baby-Teeth Journal; among others. Her personal essays are featured in the anthologies Meet Me at the Intersection and Growing Up Disabled in Australia.

She lives in Melbourne with her Guide Dog, Jemima, where she teaches drama and writing to kids and teenagers and is co-founder of ‘The YA Page’.