What is the 'new normal' for youth with #ThisAbility? The hidden lessons from COVID-19

Dilian Manolov

According to the World Health Organization, more than one billion people around the world are living with disabilities. Experiencing an emergency was different for them compared with people without disabilities. Going back to “the normal” and fastening the safety measures are periods of key importance and interest. Business, students, transportation and every sector are literally getting back to their basic targets and operations, hand in hand with the experiences from the time of the safety measures. 

Youth with disabilities as role-models

The young people with disabilities are a multidimensional part of our society. They are adolescents or youth in their early 20s; they are maturing, searching for who they truly are; they have intimate desires; they are searching for a professional pathway and much more. People with disabilities often spend a lot of time in isolation. Yes, the periods of solitude can be overcome, but the valuable lesson of how to be alone – so that you could reach a better place afterwards – remains.

A multitude of young blind people, wheelchair users and people with learning disabilities share that they felt as a role model, helping others to cope with solitude and isolation at the time of the pandemic. Knowing their experience helped others to feel better. We are starting with this specific detail, because UNICEF, the World Health Organization as well as a lot of NGOs of people with disabilities came to the same idea - safety measures were a lens which zooms in on the inequalities and the inaccessibility of the environment for people with disabilities. 

We can do a lot of things to help young people with disabilities getting back to a more positive 'new normal'. Here are some of the best:

1. Connecting with people with disabilities
2. Meaningful engagement
3. Leisure activities

Youth with disability have lower levels of wellbeing

There is a broad consensus among psychologists that young people with disabilities are with lower rates of wellbeing. This means they feel more incapable of influencing and steering their own lives. They also experience a lack of autonomy. They tend to feel more depressed; there is also a higher chance of being agressive, to feel disengaged with the people around or they might feel a lack of meaning in their life. 

  • Lower rates of autonomy usually are connected with the dependence of the person with disability on assistive software, assistive device which may malfunction or break, on an assistant who may have a bad day or generally does’t do well some parts of the job and so on. 
  • The sense of depressiveness trickles down from the sense of the limits of the possible or from the sense of lack of understanding from the others.
  • Aggression may come from the lack of possibilities to get the things done independently; from which alternative route you have to go up there with your wheelchair while the others are taking the steps. Aggression may come from the sense that the others do not understand you. But aggression may be dangerous because while being willing to be independent, the person with disability may even hurt him/herself.
  • Feeling disengaged with the others is one of the most complicated feelings. It comes from the need of nearly constant explanations of the person with disability what he/she is doing, why he/she is doing it like this. In the same time people with disabilities need to stay connected with the others so that he or she can interact better with the environment. For example, at a party you have to explain to a blind person what is going on from time to time, who is who, what is so funny now etc. 

Useful steps

To help the time of safety measures and getting back to normal to be more positive for young persons with disabilities, we can do a lot of things. Here are some of the best:

  • Connecting with people with disabilities:

As we pointed out, persons with disabilities feel better even while helping you to cope with your own solitude. We can find them if we browse the web with keywords or through their professional NGOs or we get in contact with national or regional entities for social policy or to country offices of UNICEF.

Connecting with persons with disabilities has to be done in an accessible way for them. The fastest way to understand which way is accessible is to ask directly the persons with disabilities. After connecting with them, we can work on a project which – stemming from the experience of the young people with disabilities – can make the curtain fall and to enrich our knowledge for each other. 

  • Meaningful engagement:

Taking into consideration the type of disability, the personalized activities, the age of the young person with disability, etc., “meaningful” may mean talking to a new person or to deliver medicine or groceries. The particular needs of every young person with disabilities can be found when first we search for basic quality information for the disability and then talk with the young person or a parent, an assistant etc. 

  • Leisure activities:

Quality leisure time is one of the priorities of the World Program of Action for Youth of the UN. But quality leisure time is a big challenge for adolescents with disabilities - mainly because of the inaccessible environment of the places for leisure time used by the other adolescents: a blind person can move in a shopping mall but it will be very hard, a wheelchair user cannot feel very good at much of the night clubs and a lot of the public parks.

We identify what quality leisure time means for the young person with disability by getting basic information about the disability and by asking directly the young person what gets him/her interested. But the most important thing is to not forget that he or she is an adolescent with all of the desires and wishes of the other adolescents. 

Successful inclusion

To include successfully persons with disabilities, we have to go to their buildings, organizations and zones of comfort and to connect with them there.

In some psychological conditions getting out of your home with no assistance can be tremendously stressful. For some autoimmune diseases or conditions, face masks, gloves, hand sanitizers, self-distancing and staying at home is for life.

The young persons with disabilities possess a very valuable experience for all parts of the society. This experience spans from how to be alone to how “having lemons” doesn’t have to be a life-long suffering for not “having cherries”.

It is important to make the first step and to learn and inspire from each other.

About the author:

Diliyan Manolov is a cofounder of Vizioner Foundation which empowers self-development and professional development for blind people or people with low vision. He is a young entrepreneur, Youth delegate of Bulgaria to United Nations - 2018-2019 and currently a UNICEF Global Youth Champion for Social and Behavior Change.