What does a world after COVID-19 look like? Reimagining life for Young people with #ThisAbility

A blog post by Maria Alexandrova, 19, Bulgaria

Мария Александрова за младежите с увреждания и COVID-19
UNICEF Bulgaria/2019/Nabrdalik
15 June 2020

Chapter I: Adolescents, COVID-19 and mental health.

Being a teenager, much less a senior, during this time has proven to be difficult for adolescents.

I should know – I’m one of them. Some of us are so used to a world without restrictions where we can meet our friends daily, hang out at a park, do sports, or even hug the ones we love. These drastic changes have been shown to have impacted our mental health a great deal. For example, a recent Knowledge, Attitudes, Beliefs, Practices (KABP) online survey by UNICEF Bulgaria among teenagers (15-19 years of age) showed that my peers are experiencing ambiguous feelings during the COVID-19 lockdown – from loneliness to anger. But also – we are disciplined when it comes to adhering to the public health regulations (keeping physical distance, washing hands, wearing masks) – despite the frustrations they cause us; we are also actively engaged in digital volunteering and online empathy – so much so that even cyberbullying has dropped. The survey shows that Bulgarian adolescents also distinguish between fake news and credible information and largely distrust conspiracy theories. The researchers even say that teenagers seem to be more rational and resilient during the lockdown, compared to adults. But we do miss a lot your friends, our schools, our physical socializing – that’s where the need for psycho-social support for mental health arises.

Chapter II: Youth people with disabilities and the lockdown.

UNICEF, like many other organizations, has offered general tips as to how to cope with the negative aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic. I’m going to dive a bit deeper, however, and offer you a different perspective. Instead of seeing this as a time of "can’ts" or "don’ts", we should use it to better ourselves – maybe take up a new skill, watch that movie you’ve been meaning to, or start a new workout program. Why not make the best of the situation, right? Take me for example, I’ve been trying to learn Korean for some time now. I’ve always been interested in analyses of different works of art. Video essays are my cup of tea nowadays, as well as re-watching some of my favourite TV shows. Not focusing so much on the news has also proven helpful. Unnecessary stress isn’t doing any good to anybody. The one good thing about the world we live in now is that it’s full of technology which allows us to bridge the gap between our friends and loved ones. To be honest, I don’t know what I would feel if I weren’t able to text my grandparents or friends.

But just because I’m used to this type of lifestyle doesn’t make it any less restricting or sometimes lonely. As a young person with physical disability, I wish I didn’t have to always think three steps ahead of everybody and have the freedom to do something spontaneous like other people my age.

For us, this life of isolation is the one we’ve always known. Now you, facing similar restrictions, can place yourselves in our shoes – and what better time to make a collective effort to change the situation for the better!


Chapter III: Reimagining a world after COVID-19 where children and young people with #ThisAbility are agents of change.

Start by making the first step – don’t be “scared” of us, step out of your comfort zone and ask us questions about our conditions but also our interests, try to see the person before the disability. What else? A lot of people think the biggest hurdle we face is the lack of accessibility. It’s actually not. Removing the physical barriers is indeed crucial, but far more critical are the attitudinal and behavioural patterns of the able-bodied. If those change, the rest will follow as a domino effect. If children and young people with disabilities are seen as individuals, not as diagnoses; if we are recognized for what we can do and society invests there – in the solutions, instead of what we can’t do and being over-focused on the problems – then you will be blown away by our potential. You will see that we are actually agents of change, because we have constantly tried to adjust and evolve in our daily lives, we have innovated ways in which we can function in a society that is not very hospitable to people who are “different”. Isn’t it high time to embrace those differences as richness, not as a deficit? We have a strong voice and a strong will. So, don’t “give” us a voice, we already have such, but just make the effort to listen to that voice – even if we are telling you inconvenient truths. We are the best experts in our own experiences. And if you are willing to give us a chance to tell our stories (yes, the chance is missing!), you would know what the best ways are – in a post-COVID world – to make classrooms more inclusive, to provide specialised education on topics that are otherwise taboo (e.g. sexual education for adolescents with disabilities), to make urban and rural environments more accessible, to make policies more respectful, to make workplaces more flexible, to make media more ethical, to make families more confident and to make young people with disabilities more independent.

This is the way we need to reimagine the world –  don’t do anything for us without us!

Hire us as consultants, elect us in school councils, vote for us in parliament, show us on TV as news anchors not just as “victims”, organize art galleries with our works, cut down the social distancing and make friends with us! All of it is possible and so inspiring! If you allow yourselves to imagine it, you will find the motivation to make it a reality!