Social Distance and Silver Linings

Long walks in the woods are pretty exciting, particularly in a time when going outside at all is a coveted luxury. So when my husband and I explored some walking trails near our apartment on a crisp Saturday morning, I was prepared for that singular invigoration that only trees and birds and green space inspire in me. (Plus, the buzzy, six-legged monsters hadn’t woken up yet. I take joy wherever I find it these days.)

What I did not expect was the exhilarating feeling that I’d stumbled into an alternate universe, one in which visibly disabled people could exist in public spaces without having their service dogs stroked, their canes stepped on, their hands grabbed, their wheelchairs moved. In this parallel paradise, I strolled along, unbothered, while people around me kept their distance politely.

I’ll say this again for the people waaaay in the back: People stayed out of my way, and they helped me stay out of theirs. Nicely. With their words.

Like, without me asking.

Or insisting.

Or pleading.

It got weirder. I also noticed—can you tell I haven’t been out since the pandemic clamped down?—that people were doing useful things like giving verbal descriptions of where they were, which way they were heading, and how best to avoid bumping them.

“Coming up on your left,” said the jogger, giving me ample time to move out of her way.

“Coming up on your right,” said the cyclist, ringing his bell in an uncharacteristically helpful manner as he whizzed by.

“Wow, I love her hair,” said the random stranger to my husband, speaking right over my head as usual. (Some things don’t change, not even during global pandemics.)

We spent about an hour on the trails, encountering many others as we went. My husband and I were both nervous, since my vision is useless and his isn’t perfect. Would people keep the required two metres away? Would we have to swerve to avoid others? Would anyone be paying attention but us?

Our worries weren’t as irrational as they may sound. An environment in which the average person doesn’t keep their distance, doesn’t respect personal space, is what I have learned to expect. It’s what many people with visible disabilities expect, so much so that angry posts about being grabbed by strangers on the sidewalk, on the escalator, on the bus, in the workplace are banal at this point.

This strange new world in which everyone cultivates self-awareness while they’re out and about, in which it’s not okay to touch someone, disabled or otherwise, is not something I’ve experienced before. It’s something I’ve asked for, repeatedly. It’s something I’ve tried to explain to countless folks, many of them as baffled at the end as they were at the beginning. It’s something that gets people saying defensive things like ‘I’m just being nice,’ and ‘I’m just helping.’

It took a pandemic, it would seem, to hammer the point home. Now that people live in fear of unsolicited touch, they stay away. They use their words. They shudder at the very idea of being grabbed out of nowhere on a street corner, or of doing the grabbing themselves. Who would do a thing like that in these times?

Now they get it. Sorta.

As many countries around the world sketch out relaunch strategies, people are asking each other what will change after COVID-19 has run its course. They talk about social changes, political recalibrations, a more compassionate, evolved society, or one that collapses altogether.

I don’t pretend to know what the world will look like when this is done, nor do I know how subsequent waves of the virus will affect a population that is already traumatized and grieving.

For my part, I can’t wait to be able to gather again, to shake hands without anxiety, to hug my loved ones. But if we can hang on tightly to the habit of deliberate physical distancing, especially out on the street, I think many disabled people will move through this world with a lot more confidence. I know I will.

2 thoughts on “Social Distance and Silver Linings

  1. Hi Meagan, Thanks for sharing a different perspective. Enjoy your blogs. Thank you. Tante Helene. ,

    On Tue, Apr 28, 2020 at 12:00 PM Where’s Your Dog? wrote:

    > Meagan H. Houle posted: “Long walks in the woods are pretty exciting, > particularly in a time when going outside at all is a coveted luxury. So > when my husband and I explored some walking trails near our apartment on a > crisp Saturday morning, I was prepared for that singular invig” >

  2. Ever since I’ve been isolating if I did go out, most of the time I would stay in the car unless it was of importance. I’m not locked down as such but I’ve been behaving as if I have been locked down. For a time whenever my mother would suggest that I get a haircut, I refused to go out due to social distancing and i’d be scared I might be accused of not upholding the social distancing rules when it was out of my control to begin with. I did go and have a haircut on Monday and I feel good now that my hair is tidy once again it’s the whole rule of no physical contact that worries me but the hairdresser did allow me to take her elbow to be guided to the chair and today when I was paying a couple of bills the lady behind the counter at the post office did guide my hand to where the card machine was so I could use it I miss giving my acquaintances hugs and I miss my coffee and getting out on the bike. Although cycling is essential exercise I can’t take the tandom bike out because of social distancing and a tandom bike is double the size of a regular bike and bike pathes are far too narrow but once I do start going out again publically I feel like watching my back inicially and if a police officer happens to be around i’ll be turning around and going back the way I came even if i’m out with a support worker when my services resume again maybe i’m over worried or isolation has been affecting me more than i’m letting on.

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