In a short conversation with Heidi Lourens, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Johannesburg, she speaks about how people living with disabilities continue to be made invisible in society as a result made to choose between freedom and confinement. The conversation was a reflection on an article Professor Lourens’ co-authored titled, The invisible lockdown: reflections on disability during the time of the Coronavirus pandemic.
In the conversation, Heidi lifts several issues, one being how the Covid-19 pandemic has offered little that is new in the lives of people living with disabilities. They continued to be made invisible and unnoticed during the pandemic. The invisibleness of people with disability pre- and during the pandemic produces a situation wherein they must choose between confinement and freedom.
The interview took place via an online platform, sitting in our respective homes, pushed into this situation as the pandemic continues to take control over our ability to speak face-to-face with colleagues, friends and family. I began the interview by asking Heidi what motivated her to write the article. She responded by saying:
“Immediately after the lockdown started, I thought there are things here that sound and feel a bit familiar to me. You know about my situation as a person with a disability.”
Heidi became increasingly aware that people were for example, moaning and complaining about not being able to go out of the house without feeling anxious. She was also experiencing anxiety – of contracting the virus “for the safety of family. But people were very distressed about the isolation they were experiencing.” For Heidi, there was a sense of familiarity with some of these feelings, yet not totally the same. It resonated with what life was like living with a disability. For the disabled person, there are a myriad of obstacles that have to be faced when going outside, even when going to work, yet these remain unseen – invisible to the general public. Heidi, explains how that despite the challenges faced on a daily basis by persons with disabilities the alternative would be isolation, confinement from the outside world. This confinement is a product of how the world engages with disability, Heidi points out during the interview:
“It would be a mistake to think that disabled people are living isolated lives, right? But it is more difficult not to live those isolated lives.”
Before relocating to Johannesburg, Heidi lived in a small town where there was no public transport, and she did not have a guide dog. She was totally dependent on other people should she ever want to leave her house. Heidi explained that this reliance on others for daily activities was itself isolating. Although she moved to Johannesburg and got a guide dog, experiences of anxiety are still a constant in her life, having to negotiate if cabs will accept her dog, will she be dropped in a place that her dog can navigate. So, for the disabled person, you must choose isolation or anxiety. However, isolation is also fraught with anxiety, as the world has experienced with the pandemic.
The assumption that people with disabilities should live in confinement, isolated from the world because they are comfortable with this way of the world, is challenged by Heidi. She continues to reflect that this status of confinement is rather part of the collective unconscious of able-bodied people, who live in what she reflects in the article as a ‘counterfeit paradise’, where the current order of the world is just towards all people.
In fact, it is seen as unjust, in this paradise, when people living with disabilities affirm their own freedom outside of the boundaries of the status quo. Heidi captures this need for a self-defined freedom in the interview speaking on her last adventure skydiving before the world was plunged into chaos:
“You know it just felt I’m as free as a bird. And freedom is exceptionally important for me because it’s something that I don’t often have – being free and being spontaneous.”
Although the pandemic may not have been different experientially for Heidi, she argues that it is the invisibility of disability, that has probably been exacerbated by the pandemic, that creates a situation of expected confinement. Her experience of skydiving was to push against this confinement, towards the freedom that is afforded to able-bodied persons.
On this year’s International Day of Disabled Persons, Heidi’s reflections about how people living with disability are somewhere between freedom and confinement should awaken us all to how we treat, write, think, and engage with persons living with disabilities. We should also become increasingly mindful to the ways in which we may force person’s living with disability into confinement, denying them the freedom that able-bodied persons enjoy in their daily lives.
You can find the full article The invisible lockdown: reflections on disability during the time of the Coronavirus pandemic here
Full Transcript of the interview is available on South African Association of Counselling Psychologists social media pages: