Black swan brings opportunity to disability on wings of adversity

Amid all the chaos of the global pandemic, Ari Seirlis – former QASA CEO – shares his thoughts on “black swan” or the bad things that happened to him and how it lead to opportunity.

2020 was going to be a great year for everyone. I remember reading the many Facebook comments by friends about how this new decade was going to be ground-breaking with vast opportunities and wealth, while health and relationships flourish. But of course, this was not quite what happened.

A black swan is an unpredictable or unforeseen event, which is typically rare with extreme consequences and a massive role in historical affairs. There have been about 10 black swan events in my lifetime, including: the 1997 Asian financial crisis; 2000 the dot-com crash; 2001 the 9/11 terrorist attack in the United States; 2008 global financial meltdown; 2009 European sovereign debt crisis; 2010 Fukushima nuclear disaster; 2014 crude oil crisis; 2015 China Black Monday stock market crisis and the 2016 BREXIT.

Certainly, the consequences of each had world-changing consequences, but not equally. One of the events, the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers in New York, was of particular interest to me. After the event, I had the opportunity to do some research about how many wheelchair users perished and how to potentially survive if you were in the building at the time?

Many years ago, I travelled to New York to engage with Christopher Reeve to establish a relationship, which, till this day, benefits QASA. At the time, I travelled up and down both of the World Trade Centre buildings and wondered what would happen if the lift stopped working. I got an insight into the emergency evacuation procedures which they used in these buildings.

Each wheelchair user, when employed at a company in the building, received an Evac chair – a well-designed evacuation chair for people with disabilities to be taken down a stairwell. The problem was that the chairs were given to each individual who then stored the Evac chair under their desks, and, for the most part, forget about them.

Subsequently, some moved to a different floor or to the front desk, and, over time, nobody knew where these essential chairs were. On that fateful day, 11 September 2001, several wheelchair users perished in the Towers. Those who survived were the ones who managed to locate their Evac devices and were assisted down.

As a result of this black swan event, regulations regarding the placement of evacuation chairs was adjusted and promulgated. These chairs would now be placed in a designated holding area, on each floor. You will see these in many of our buildings here. So, positive change and outcome for wheelchair users as a result of this tragedy.

A black swan event can create some incredible opportunities. It can change everything, from the economy of an individual or a country to the economy of the world. This is what we are witnessing with this Coronavirus pandemic. I want to wish South Africa strength in this time, good health to my friends, family and fellow people with disabilities who are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19.

Stick to the regulations of the day. Avoid contracting as much as you can. Let’s socially distance, stay at home, safe, for as long as possible. This is not going to be over very soon and this is where the opportunity arises.

Hear me out … In particular, wheelchair users as a constituency in the disability sector. To be honest, our mobility is always dependent on us having access to door-to-door with very little accessible public transport. Many employers have battled and grappled with finding a place for us in the workplace.

Our accessibility has been restricted by the lack of accessibility of the built environment and infrastructure, either by poor design or the ignorance of the landlord, stubbornness of the developer or an unwilling architect failing to embrace universal design. The structural barrier seems to have given them adequate reason for not employing us as a viable disability cohort, no matter what our skills are.

Yes, we can fight and we can advocate and we can throw the book of legislation at the potential or present employer, and we can sue and we can class action and we can toyi-toyi, but at the end of the day, very few victories have been attained by the actions mentioned. This is the sad reality.

The Coronavirus pandemic has changed the face of the working world. These changes are to our advantage. We must be ready and embrace this change and take the opportunities it has created. Working from home has been legitimised as a workable viable option overnight! Let’s package our skills, concede to inaccessible environments and use this as an opportunity to show employers that we are the best constituency for “working from home” jobs.

Let us enhance our IT skills and knowledge in readiness to work from home. Now is the time to promote our viability through the BBBEE legislation environment. And guess what? We may be the best choice for those jobs reassigned to the home environment. To put it crassly, employers will have the best of both worlds in this instance. They neither have to see or accommodate us, yet, they will get the benefit of their Employment Equity box ticked and we are employed.

We are comfortable in our homes. Our caregivers, if we have, remain available and close by us, yet out of sight of our Zoom profile. Let this black swan be our journey into the workplace. So be it from home.

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