The real argument

If the end of mask mandates means a win for freedom, who is that freedom for?

5 minute read
A green sign on a glass door says “Philly Bagels.” A handwritten blue sign above says “mask required! Thank you!”
Is Philly (and the rest of the country) through with wearing a mask? (Photo by Alaina Johns.)

After a federal judge ruled this week that masks are no longer required on public transportation, travel feels easier for some people, and more difficult for others. Philly moved ahead of other cities to reinstate an indoor mask mandate in response to increasing Covid rates—and now faces an anti-mask lawsuit. We’re paying attention to this at BSR, not because we specialize in health policy, but because accessibility is important to us.

Many media outlets frame pandemic policy debates as a battle between government control and individual freedom. But here’s another way to see it: who can get into the room versus who can’t. Arguments about mask mandates are arguments about accessibility.

Pandemic mask policies are accessibility aids, just like ramps or captioning (which, like masks, can benefit anyone, not only people with disabilities). Ramps or captions welcome people with disabilities that are more easily visible; autoimmune disorders (for example), which put people at higher risk of serious illness from Covid-19, are often invisible. Especially in close-packed spaces (like trains or theaters), mask requirements make it safer for everyone to enter, but especially those with invisible disabilities.

When we argue against masking while Covid rates are up, that’s a way of saying this space is not for people with disabilities, even if that space is a bus or an office that they cannot choose to avoid.

Menus and intermissions

It can seem strange, at first, to apply an accessibility lens so broadly, but most of us are already participating in broad-based accessibility thinking which applies not only to physical and digital public spaces, but to private spaces, as well.

For example, I have a chronic illness that limits what I can eat or drink. When loved ones invite me to dinner, they check with me about the menu, and I do the same when hosting. Not only does this ensure that everyone can eat safely and comfortably, it means that everyone feels understood and welcome—not ashamed of their needs.

Any time we plan a dinner party that is sensitive to the needs of guests with illnesses, allergies, or who are in recovery from addiction, we practice accessibility.

Any theater-goer understands another widespread practice that can make it easier to attend a play versus a movie, lecture, or class. Theaters offer intermission: a standard break that lets patrons stretch, get a snack or drink, use the bathroom, and refocus.

Everyone can benefit from breaks, but some need them more than others, including youngsters and many neurodivergent folks. Intermissions in any setting are nods to accessibility.

The restroom problem

Speaking of breaks, bathrooms are another important accessibility topic—beyond the obvious imperative of stalls equipped for wheelchair users. Some people need a restroom more often than others, because of menstruation, age, pregnancy, or a medical condition.

I’m one of those people with an illness that means frequent bathroom breaks. During many doctor visits, I have had to request access to a locked office to obtain a key for a locked restroom (sometimes on another floor), and then ring the office doorbell again to return the key. Sure, a bathroom is there, but it’s almost as if no one wants me to actually use it.

Restrooms that are too small, inadequate for a crowd, or hard to find and open, can deter many people from public events they might otherwise enjoy, or even necessary outings like shopping, school, or doctor visits. Many American cities, including Philly, are notorious for their lack of public restrooms. It took me a long time to stop internalizing my shame about being a person who’s affected by this, and realize it’s an accessibility problem.

A welcome warning

We also practice accessibility in academic, written, or digital spaces when we note trigger or content warnings. Some people scoff at this, but it's actually a simple, unobtrusive way to help vulnerable people access public discourse. Common examples are news stories or media platforms that note descriptions or images of potentially triggering topics, such as sexual assault, eating disorders, or suicide.

So instead of having to remove ourselves from whole segments of media, those of us with trauma or certain psychiatric conditions (like I have) can join public discourse more freely, while avoiding specific content that causes us genuinely debilitating or dangerous distress. Instead of discouraging engagement, content warnings keep the doors open to as many people as possible.

Real freedom

Masks, Braille and ASL, captions, ramps, menus, breaks, restrooms, content warnings—these (or the lack thereof) all help determine who is welcome in the space, and who isn’t. Even if we never thought much about accessibility before, chances are we’re already participating in it in a variety of ways, with benefits so obvious that we’d never question the habit.

Even for those of us who are convinced that personal freedom is the greatest good in the mask debate, it’s worth asking: freedom for whom? Able-bodied people? What about folks with disabilities who never had the option to give up masking in the first place, and whose risk rises as more people ditch masks in crowded spaces? Is it really freedom when it only applies to some of us? An investment in real freedom would be collective action for accessibility, which would benefit us all, and let us all move freely in the world.

There are so many kinds of accessibility—economic access, spaces including young people and old people and fat people, room for different languages and genders, literacy and Internet access. What other kinds of access can you think of? Reach out, share, and let us know.

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