This Is Not Freedom Day for Vulnerable Disabled People Like Me

BY RACHEL CHARLTON-DAILEY

From today, all covid restrictions are being pulled back in England. People are no longer required to social distance, nor do they have to wear a mask indoors or on public transport. There are no more limitations to how many people you can meet indoors and outdoors.

The day is being touted as "freedom day", but for those of us with disabilities and chronic illnesses, it's anything but.

For a good part of the 14.1 million disabled people in the UK, “freedom day” actually marks the start of a new nightmare. Many have barely left their homes for the last 18 months, and now we fear being forced back inside again.

I’m in the clinically extremely vulnerable group. I have Lupus, an autoimmune disease that makes me susceptible to infections. I shielded during the first lockdown, only leaving the house to walk my dog during quiet times of the day. I’d slowly been building my confidence for the last six months or so, and was finally starting to feel okay about doing the occasional shopping or meeting small groups of friends, thanks to masks and social distancing measures.

When I went out, I always saw everyone wearing masks, and for the most part, being polite about keeping a social distance. As a disabled person with both mobility issues and a compromised immune system, I felt taken care of. It felt like everyone was doing what was safe for the good of those most vulnerable in society, but it seems that as soon as they could, disabled people were disregarded again.

Throughout the pandemic, disabled people have repeatedly been treated as disposable. Right from the very beginning, we were told that everything would be okay because it was only the old and vulnerable that would die.

Despite not being true, the message was pretty clear to those of us who fall into the vulnerable category. Our lives don’t matter.

New health secretary Sajid Javid recently admitted that England is now entering “uncharted territory”, and that Covid cases could hit 100,000 a day. But nobody cares as long as the majority can go to the pub, right?

After all, disabled and vulnerable people were asked to sign DNRs when the virus was peaking - often without their knowledge. Shielding wasn’t even brought back during the second lockdown, which, although it meant we were just shut inside our homes without help, took away our protections, and our ability to not go to the office if we couldn’t work from home. Vulnerable people also weren’t entitled to furlough if it was our decision and not our employers’.

It should have been good news that the vaccine became available, but the priority lists were so needlessly complex that many of us didn’t fit in them, even though we’d been shielding for a year.

Amy Kavanagh, who is a visually impaired consultant and activist, says “I’m increasingly scared of people not socially distancing because I can’t do it.” She tells me the anticipation of people grabbing her or getting in her space is already impacting her mental health. “It worries me that I won’t be able to say ‘please don’t touch me because of the pandemic’ because the Government has given everyone permission.”

During the pandemic, one way the playing field was leveled for disabled people was the ability to work from home. There are no specific rules about it, the option being left to the discretion of the employer, and there are fears that with the world reopening, employers will be keen to get the workforce back into the office.

“If I say I don't want to go in, that I need things to be done virtually, will I be rejected from the job?” asks Ginny Butcher, a law graduate with Muscular Dystrophy.

The rationale for opening up now is that most people are vaccinated, but it must be remembered that not all immunocompromised people can get the vaccine, and that the new variants are becoming more resistant to it. I’ve had both of my vaccines, but as I have an immune system disorder, I can’t take the risk. This means my already small world will have to get smaller again.

Honestly, the prospect of “freedom day” terrifies and upsets me. It makes me feel like nobody cares about my life and those of other disabled people. I’m worried about being able to safely do the food shopping without catching the virus. I know I’ll be anxious whenever I go out.

By fully opening up as we're facing a third wave, and just expecting disabled people to hide inside again whilst everyone enjoys themselves, this country shows us that it cares more about a good night out than disabled lives.