During the pandemic of 2020 that crossed into 2021, we learned a lot about each other and about basic human needs.
Before March of 2020, in-person business meetings were often viewed as inconvenient, inessential and even unnecessary. Was the time worth it? They involved dressing up, travel and small talk. Sometimes it felt like email could have been more effective.
Now that we have been operating in “crisis” mode for so many months, most meetings have turned into emails, or lackluster virtual gatherings on Zoom. With little small talk or interpersonal connection, it became clear that we were missing something essential.
I now have a deeper appreciation for the less tangible things that we have all been missing: hearing about someone’s weekend plans, putting an arm around someone who is having a rough day and a high-five to celebrate a new job or some other achievement. I want to look people in the eye, not through a screen! They need to know that I’m really listening and that I care. These things are simple, and they are so important.
The connections we make from being close to other people, the trust that we build through conversation about our lives before and after our meetings – those things are just as important as the work that we get done. In fact, our relationships with others make our work easier and more effective. People are much more likely to collaborate and help with projects when they trust and care about each other. We are social creatures.
Like so much else, this is no different for the people with disabilities supported by day programs across Minnesota. One of them, Productive Alternatives, a sizable, yet rural disability nonprofit, did a survey asking people with disabilities what they missed about coming to the programs during the lockdown. Nine out of 10 said they missed their friends. “I love to be there. They are my ‘family,’ the people I’m closest to.”
Disability programs across our great state excel in making these kinds of connections with people. They are a part of the social and emotional safety net that tens of thousands have come to rely on, and we have learned that, without us, the disability service providers, many people suffer the negative effects of isolation.
On March 30, 2020, those crucial connections were effectively shut off for many of the people in our programs, and the staff who care so deeply for them.
We can’t go back and change what happened, but we can look ahead and try to learn from this past year. If something as alarming and disruptive as COVID-19 presents itself again, how will we ensure that people’s social and emotional well-being is valued as much as their physical health and safety? How will we do better at striking a balance between promoting safety and respecting people’s individual rights?
The pandemic is a reminder of the simple things that we often take for granted. I still value the tangible work that we get done for people with disabilities, to help them achieve their goals and dreams, and the employment opportunities we connect people to.
Through all of life’s successes and struggles, it is the value we place on our relationships that makes the journey worthwhile. The storm clouds of this tragic pandemic had at least one silver lining. Many have a newfound awareness and commitment to make those connections.
Julie Johnson is president of the Minnesota Organization for Habilitation and Rehabilitation (MOHR), a trade association made up of nearly 100 disability service providers from across the state.
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