There are numerous stories regarding how disabled people are being ignored during the current pandemic, such as the lack of testing of disabled people in care homes, ventilators usually provided for people with conditions, such as Muscle Dystrophy being reserved for Covid 19 patients and the shortage of hydroxychloroquine for people with Lupus. What is going unnoticed is the erosion of disability access as a result of neoliberal shock therapy.
In her groundbreaking book, Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein argues that the emergence of some neoliberal policies are because of deliberate ‘shock therapy’, as a result of a national crisis. In this case the global pandemic is allowing neolberial governments and industries to implement usually controversial policies, whilst the population is too distracted by their own health or the health of their loved ones. Neoliberal attitudes towards disability, often conceives it as an inconvenience that is best ignored. The needs of disabled people are often seen as too costly and thus get in the way of maximising profits.
Over the past 30 years, disabled people have fought hard to get equal access to public places and services, but what we have seems to be disappearing. Modern technology which is replacing older facilities is not being made accessible. Over the past few years more and more supermarkets have been introducing self-service checkouts as a cost saving exercise. They are the product of a neoliberal society. Several self-service checkouts reduce staffing costs as they only require one member of staff to manage them. The problem is that for older and disabled people self-service checkouts are mostly inaccessible. As a woman with dwarfism I have tried to avoid using self-service checkouts as they are not size suitable for me, resulting in difficulties reaching the touchscreen. However, as a result of the pandemic avoiding them is becoming more difficult.
As a result of the result of the Global pandemic, social distancing has provided more retailers with the excuse to implement self-service checkouts, which can be considered a form of ‘shock therapy’ which will lead to more access issues for disabled people. The Americans with Disabilities Act (1990) and Equality Act (2010) (UK) provide disabled people the right to access goods and service. Therefore if self-service checkouts are not accessible, companies are floating these acts. However, currently people are more concerned about social-distancing and thus the impact on disabled people, as usual, goes unnoticed.
Self-service checkouts are not just appearing in supermarkets, but also in places not usually expected, including smaller shops. For example, I went to my local health food shop where their new policy is for people to scan their own items. Whilst this is understandable, I was unable to scan my items as the counter was too high and the scanner was placed too far back. Only the needs of the average sized, able bodied person was considered. What was worrying was how the cashier informed me that other small businesses, which are hoping to reopen soon, were inspired by their new process and were considering introducing it themselves. If this is the case a lot of more places are going to become inaccessible for a lot of disabled people.
Although help is often available, I often feel like an inconvenience or face embarrassment when I ask for it. When requiring assistance, such as to touch the screen to choose what method of payment I want to use, I have to search for a member of staff, who does not always respond positively when I ask for help. When using a self-service checkout the other day, I politely called over a member of staff and asked her to press one of the onscreen buttons. She responded by telling me what to do and pointing at the screen, implying that I could do it, but was either purposely choosing not to or was not intelligent enough to follow instructions. I responded by telling her that I knew what to do, but could not reach the screen as I was too short. Of course she apologised, but that did not stop me feeling embarrassed. However, it is not just staff attitudes that need to change, but also the attitudes of industries have in relation to disabled access.
Despite disability legislation, it is always a constant battle in neoliberal societies to get access, as industries put profits first. It has been found that industries adopting self-service checkouts have very little understanding of the access needs of disabled users and are more concerned about the additional costs involved in making them more accessible. When it comes to disability access, it is often rejected because businesses think it will be too costly. Of course, if accessible self-service machines are considered more costly then it defeats the purpose of them in the first place. However, this does not have to be the case, as facilities can be both accessible and cost effective.
If more and more self-service checkouts are to be introduced then they need to be accessible for older people and a wide range of disabled people. This is attainable by changing attitudes and perceptions. From an industry point of view, it needs to be recognised that the more accessible self-service checkouts are, the more access older and disabled people will have and thus are more likely to shop at their stores. Or better still, let’s put people before profits and retain cashiers.
Dr Erin Pritchard is a Lecturer in Disability Studies at Liverpool Hope University. She is also a core member of the Centre for Cultural Disability Studies. Her work focuses on the social and spatial experiences of people with dwarfism. Most recently she co-edited a special issue on representations of dwarfism for the Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies. She has also written for the Independent and Times Higher.