Navigating COVID-19 with a child who has disabilities

Stanley taking a walk with his gait trainer. Photo: Amber Drea
Stanley taking a walk with his gait trainer. Photo: Amber Drea

My four-year-old son Stanley has autism, a compromised immune system due to a liver transplant, and several developmental disabilities, including the inability to speak or walk without a mobility device. Prior to the COVID-19 quarantine, his daily walks were a necessary break in his day, sandwiched between several hours of therapy in the morning and preschool in the afternoon. Now that he’s cooped up at home, getting outside is even more important than ever. He has a special walker called a gait trainer, which he uses almost everywhere he goes. I always try to change up the destinations because he enjoys exploring new places. Often we would go to parks and playgrounds, but he also loves walking around different neighborhoods, and if the weather was bad, we’d head to the library or a mall. Indoor public spaces are no longer an option, and playgrounds are off limits, but many parks are still open and neighborhoods never close. 

I’ve taken this opportunity to stray off the beaten path and find various areas with lots of paved trails and sidewalks that aren’t too crowded. However, there are many neighborhoods that only have sidewalks on one side of the street or none at all, but we don’t find out until we get to a place where the sidewalk ends and then have to backtrack (which Stanley hates) or walk on the road until we find another sidewalk. 

The other problem is maintaining safe social distance from other people. I try my best to guide Stanley as far away from passersby as possible, but occasionally runners or cyclists will come up quickly behind us and not respect the recommended six-foot radius. Other times a person or family will approach us and not move aside even though they can see that my son has a walker so it’s difficult for us to go onto the grass or into the street. In one instance, my husband Jeb took Stanley to an empty parking lot, thinking no one would be around an empty office building on a Saturday. Unfortunately, a man was walking his dog off the leash and allowed the animal to run right up to my son, frightening him and causing the man to come within a couple feet of my husband to retrieve the dog. Jeb told the man he shouldn’t approach other people so closely, and the man acted incredulous and insulted. 

Illinois’ Stay at Home order began on March 21, more than three weeks ago, but it seems that some people still haven’t gotten the memo or they simply don’t care. I constantly see groups of teenagers hanging out in close proximity or playing football, behavior that’s against the rules because it can spread the virus. Last week, an older woman was outside blowing bubbles with her grandchildren, and as I watched the small soap spheres float toward us, I wondered if COVID-19 can be transmitted via bubble. Wearing face masks everywhere we go provides some protection, but even with masks, we should all be practicing appropriate social distancing from others. And for my son who has special needs, wearing a mask can be problematic due to his sensory issues and his inability to understand what’s happening.

Aside from the handful of inconsiderate or oblivious strangers we’ve encountered, most people are following the Center for Disease Control’s guidelines, and we can keep taking our daily walks. Hopefully we can continue to do so as the weather gets warmer and summer brings e-learning to an end, which will mean even more families flooding the parks and sidewalks. All we ask is for people to try to be more aware of individuals with disabilities and do what they can to give them a wide berth.

Here are some tips on preventing the spread of COVID-19, and advice for Chicagoans on what to do if you think you may have been exposed to the virus. 

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