Image of artwork created by Asha, Ron Buliung's daughter

Accessibility, health and lessons to be learned from the pandemic

Tuesday, April 21, 2020 - 2:01pm

The current global pandemic and associated physical distancing measures brings many additional challenges for the more vulnerable in society, yet it may also provide opportunities for improved social cohesion and new ways of communicating going forward, says one UofT Mississauga professor.

Ron Buliung has been a faculty member in UTM’s Department of Geography and in Geography & Planning at U of T since 2006. He is a transport geographer who mainly works on issues related to disability and the city.

As someone who has devoted time to studying things such as telecommuting, Buliung notes that the idea of telework or working from a distance predates even the telegraph – it’s all about communication, he says. Now, we are seeing the full weight of modern information and communication being brought to bear in an unexpected socio-technical experiment on a grand scale. It is an interesting time to see people en masse suddenly being plunged into this new reality with the tools at hand to figure out how to make it work.

While we marvel at the possibility of an emergent technological fix, Buliung says we should not lose focus on long standing issues of inequality and outright suffering that have broadened in scope and intensity as a result of this crisis. He points to the fact that one of the most powerful public health interventions currently is physical distancing, and asks how that works in a place like Daravi, Mumbai, India where 700,000 people occupy a space of 2.1 sq. km?

There is also the question of accessibility as it relates to children with disabilities. Buliung is concerned about the effects that self-isolation will have on children and those who are vulnerable.

“I can speak as a parent of a child with a disability, the lack of social contact with peers is significant given this current situation, and I can’t help but wonder how we would cope if my daughter were currently in post-secondary education,” says Buliung.

Within the post-secondary context, he wonders how accommodation measures, largely developed to work within a brick-and-mortar context, will need to be retooled to offer on-line access to education and student support.

He states we also need to think more broadly about people who are living in violent homes and also those who are at particular risk when it comes to mental and physical well-being.

“There are also the cases of faculty, staff and students who are immunocompromised,” says Buliung.

“If we suddenly get the all-clear that the curve has been flattened and it is business as usual, do we send our children back, and do those who are immunocompromised go back? How does that policy decision intersect with the health of students, staff and faculty? We need to think about how to use the tools to make it possible for broader participation in the education project.”

Despite the many problems, Buliung sees that there are some positives to come of the current crisis. There are obvious ones, such as the reduction of fossil fuels if fewer people are getting in their cars to go to work or travelling, but there is considerable potential for this effect to rebound, and for people to move away from shared mobility, fearing the spread of the disease.

In his current role as the Graduate Chair of the tri-campus programs in Geography & Planning, he has the opportunity to work closely with graduate students. They recently held a virtual townhall to discuss the current challenges and concerns faced by graduate students. He says he can imagine continuing to use this townhall as a way to reach more students on a regular basis.

“One other way to think about this is what’s going to stick following this crisis,” says Buliung.

“I think for many of us our behaviours and how we relate to one another will probably be changed irrevocably, and some things are not so bad. As a simple example, maybe this will encourage people to stay home when they are sick. But also, I'm seeing that this crisis is drawing some of us closer together, relating to one another in a more thoughtful and genuine way, checking in more often with each other.

“I suspect that if you looked at the social behaviour of previous generations during and after crisis you might see the reporting of similar sociological and psychological effects.”