Shelley Petit can’t leave her house without a mask, but it isn’t like the masks all New Brunswickers have worn to the grocery store during the pandemic.
In fact, it isn’t to protect her from contracting COVID-19. Petit lives with a disability called Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, which she said she contracted a few years ago and means even the exhaust of a diesel car passing by can make her ill. Even letting her cats outside she wears the specially designed mask to prevent inhalation of certain triggering chemicals, she said.
Petit, a teacher before the onset of her disability, said she has not attended an in-person event in a few years, as just leaving her Fredericton home is a risky exercise.
But then the pandemic happened, and instead of leaving her feeling isolated she said she now feels needed and included in ways she hasn’t been in years. She got involved in Girl Guides as a trainer through Zoom, and is training others from as far away as British Columbia and the Territories. She is planning a virtual camping trip for girls from two different provinces.
“For a long time I felt like I was a burden,” she said. Now that’s not the case. “I was needed to do something again.”
Petit is the secretary and in charge of membership for the New Brunswick Coalition for Persons with Disabilities, a group that formed in 2020 and meets remotely. She is also taking a class, has joined a knitting group, and is attending virtual tours of museums and other places she can no longer travel to because of her disability, she said.
While the pandemic won’t last forever, Petit says her biggest hope is that organizations, employers and governments don’t just switch back to in-person only ways of doing things when the pandemic ends.
She said she’s scared some organizations will stop using Zoom or having virtual offerings just because they don’t have to anymore, cutting off people like her who can’t attend in person.
Murielle Pitre of Riverview uses a wheelchair. She said she’d like to see events, classes and services offer both in-person and virtual options when the pandemic ends.
Organizers may have an event that is technically accessible to someone in a wheelchair, she said, but fatigue often stops some people who use mobility devices from attending in person.
“It’s a lot of work to get in and out of my van,” she said.
Pitre also worries about security issues when spending a lot of time in a dark parking lot after an evening event.
During the pandemic, ways to participate in meetings and events emerged online that meant she could take part in several every week, she said.
In addition to her work with the New Brunswick Coalition for Persons with Disabilities as the vice chair and director of communications, she has also joined a Bible Study group, something she finds meaningful but previously felt would be one fatiguing in-person.
Members of the coalition have also had meetings with politicians that everyone could easily attend, said Pitre.
And things like the province’s health care public consultation events, which may have previously been inaccessible to Petit and others, are now something she can fully participate in, something of particular significance given that many people with disabilities often use the health-care system more.
“In COVID, people have been living some of the reality that we live every day,” said Pitre. The difference is for those not living with disabilities, “their lives are going to get back to normal when the pandemic is over.”
Pitre implores those making decisions about events, meetings, consultations, courses or workplaces to keep certain options that have emerged in COVID in place. “Don’t isolate us, but give us options,” she said.
Haley Flaro, executive director of Ability New Brunswick, said offering multiple options is the most important thing organizations, companies and governments can do. She noted that half of the clients served by Ability New Brunswick do not have access to reliable internet, so while some people have felt more connected during the pandemic, it isn't an experience shared by all. And unlike Petit and Pitre, others living with disabilities have found the pandemic isolating and received less support than usual, she said.
Ability New Brunswick is calling on employers who previously weren’t open to remote work to stay open to it after the pandemic ends. “Accommodating is about keeping good talent in the workplace,” she said, noting accommodations benefit more than just people with disabilities.
Clara Pasieka, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Telegraph-Journal