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.