Mask Up, and Keep Smiling!

After 150 days of trauma, virtual working, socialising and home-schooling and agonising over whether to send our kids back to the village primary School for the last few weeks of term in July, we are slowly welcoming close family back into our home and emerging into a new World.

Everything has changed. In my first lockdown blog, I anticipate decades of inaccessibility being wiped away and a changed world emerging, one where costly and archaic practices such as office working and our toxic political system would be consigned to the past. I should not have hoped. There has not been trustworthy, coherent and timely advice from the Government, Disabled people were barely mentioned in communications from the Government during the lockdown, city centres are becoming no-go areas for disabled people and Cross-Country trains are no longer taking bookings for wheelchair spaces on their services. Working from home, which was beneficial to everyone, is under pressure from Billionaire property owners and others with an interest in screwing commuters for profit, meekly backed by the Government who have been busily ushering in their vision of a ‘Big society’ (for the few).

I have always maintained that us disabled people need to be out there, using public transport, being denied equal treatment at shops or restaurants so that we can push against it and drive the change that is needed. This is very hard, and I haven’t missed doing it. I enjoyed home-schooling my six-year-old son, the virtual meetings and virtual socialising are great as they come without the hours of travelling and without the visual stigma of being a wheelchair user. Although I have had to pause much of my voluntary work, I am much more involved with Ataxia UK, I am also rekindling my love of film, music and books. My time is more valuable to me as I don’t spend hours travelling between Oxford and London. I think I have adapted well to changes as society affects me, but after months of being afraid and excluded, re-establishing my place in this new world is daunting. But I will do it.

a family of four wearing masks
The Brown Family at RAF Duxford August 2020

Mask Up and Keep Smiling!

Going out for the first time is a big step. I learned that negotiating this new world with a mask, I realised how much as a disabled person, I rely on smiling at people. I feel awkward at being unable to do so. As most experts agree that between 70% and 93% of communication is non-verbal, this must be difficult for everyone. For me, I think it started as an unconscious way of warding of the ‘unwanted helper’, but also a key signal to others when you catch that awkward glance and return it with a big smile. I call it the ‘Everything’s Fine’ smile, it can have a lovely mirror effect as people read my signal “I’m one of you guys!’ and smile back. Roald Dahl talks a lot about how his genuinely good characters smile with their eyes. Whilst wearing a mask, I tried smiling with just my eyes, but it didn’t seem to have an effect. I also found that people avoid eye-contact more than before. I suspect you need both eyes and mouth to smile!

People have different views on wearing masks. Simply – if you can wear one, you should. I have made a few trips out local towns and estimate about 60% of people wear masks in the street, about 90% in a shopping centre. I look at everyone not wearing a mask and wonder why: do they have a hidden disability, are they expressing their defiance or their God-given freedom of choice, did they leave theirs at home, are they carrying theirs in a pocket to put on when going into a shop or are they just selfish c***s? Probably a nice mixture of all. With the country neatly and intentionally divided over every major issue, I wonder if those who have decided they cannot or will not wear a mask also voted to leave the EU or are flat-earthers, anti-vaxxers, conspiracy theorists, racists, and/or tabloid readers. As I like to think am a genuinely good person, I resist the urge to sigh, roll my eyes and shake my head slowly. In a survey recently completed by Scope, 59% of disabled people feel forgotten by the Government and 41% of disabled people expect their lives to get worse following the Pandemic.

OurBus Bartons

passengers wearing masks boarding a bus
Passengers in masks

It is not just disabled people who are struggling to adjust to the realities of a new world. The pace of change is overwhelming enough, but for ‘vulnerable’ people already reeling from cuts to services made in the name of austerity, the traumatic way they have been pushed into this new world is a betrayal too far. The passengers of OurBus Bartons, A not-for-profit community transport service I helped set-up and have helped keep running since 2016, are a good example.

When Public Transport was withdrawn from our village in 2016, many in our community felt they had lost a lifeline. They felt abandoned and needed carefully planned support to overcome this. OurBus Bartons stepped in to bridge those gaps, but now the world has changed again. Once again, there is no support available for our Community. It is not even clear as to how Community Transport will fit in anymore. The sector has already fended off a judicial review brought against it by private operators jealously guarding their profits.

We suspended services following concerns about the spread of the ‘Tucana’ virus (our first bus is a VW Tucana!) back in March, we decided this month that the risk had fallen sufficiently to resume a limited service. Other operators across the sector were doing the same. I thought there would be a real need for us to restart our services long before. Most of our passengers are elderly, word-of-mouth gives a strong impression that they are ready to go back. I wonder if as people worked from home, they were able to provide the support their elderly relatives, neighbours or friends really need? As people are forced to return to the workplace, the dangerous gaps that appeared in 2016 and were not fixed then, are exposed once again. Loneliness in rural areas is a problem than must be tackled properly. The mental health implications of such fundamental changes are enormous.

How Can We Fix This?

Reverse the cuts to public services made through austerity, scrap the failed Universal Credit system and rescue public services from private greed. Then there needs to be a considered and careful transition to a future of reduced car use, cashless transactions, using the internet for shopping and medical appointments, and mask-wearing for each group pushed to the edges of society. Reforming our Tax System to recover tax unpaid by off-shore companies would easily fund this.

It means a lot to me that once again, OurBus Bartons will not leave anyone behind in this rapidly changing world and is going back to the work of putting people before profit. Be nice if this Government did the same.

Richard Brown

August 2020

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