People with disabilities have been disproportionately affected by COVID. ONS data reveal that the disabled are reporting more adverse impacts on their medical care and greater struggles to access relevant support services, along with higher levels of anxiety, loneliness and pessimism than their non-disabled counterparts. In terms of employment, research by the Leonard Cheshire Foundation in November found that those with disabilities have suffered greater barriers to employment during the pandemic than the non-disabled, in part because many work in hard-hit sectors such as hospitality and retail, but also because their employers have faced particular challenges in providing them with appropriate support. Unfortunately, the employment outlook for people with disabilities post-pandemic appears bleak. Before COVID struck, people with disabilities were already much less likely to be employed, 54%, than the non-disabled, 82%. In the post-pandemic world, these trends are likely to be amplified, with disabled people at risk of higher levels of unemployment, poverty and social exclusion.
At the same time, the retail sector has been one of the hardest hit by the pandemic. Many retailers have shut down permanently, among predictions that COVID will change the face of retail for ever. In July 2020, it was estimated 11% of retail units in the UK were vacant, with this figure set to rise further. Alongside this, we are witnessing changing trends in consumer behaviour; research suggests that, post-COVID, there is likely to be a heightened awareness among consumers of ethical purchasing and sustainability, and a greater concern with shopping locally. As we start to emerge the other side of this crisis, the challenge and, at the same time, the opportunity, is this: how can the empty shops lining our high streets provide new employment opportunities for disabled people while addressing consumer demands for ethically-sourced, local and sustainable products?