The Doc Project·Personal Essay

I've been 'sheltering in place' long before COVID-19 — here are some tips on how to make it easier

Sean Towgood is used to long periods of isolation. The combination of Canadian winters and electric wheelchairs have forced him to frequently “shelter-in-place” over his lifetime. Along the way he has developed some helpful tips while waiting out any storm.

Living with a disability makes Sean Towgood uniquely qualified to offer advice

Sean Towgood has cerebral palsy and was on a supportive housing waitlist for four years. He finally got an apartment all to himself in January 2020, right before the pandemic started. (Submitted by Sean Towgood)

I finally got an apartment all to myself after searching for assisted housing in the city for years. In January, I moved in. And then all of a sudden COVID-19 hit, and my plans, like many other people's, ground to a halt.

As a person living with a disability, I'm considered part of the vulnerable population. It's been recommended that I don't leave the building at all. So much for exploring the city.

The thing is, unlike many, I am used to long periods of isolation. The combination of Canadian winters and electric wheelchairs have forced me to frequently "shelter-in-place" over my lifetime.

So, over my 27 years of experience with wheelchair lifts that break down in the cold, sidewalks that aren't shoveled and the increased difficulty of transportation, I've developed some helpful tips while waiting out any storm.

Organize your space

Organize your space so you don't even have to move. In a world where everyone is moving at high speeds from one place to another, here's your chance to discover the benefits of stillness.

Try setting up a work space for yourself where everything is within reach. Ironically, I have a standing desk. It's high enough that I don't hit my knees on the underside of it if my startle reflex kicks in, and it's big enough so I can fit just about everything I need on it.

Sean Towgood has a desk big enough to fit just about everything he needs on it. It has his smart speaker, his gaming system, his laptop and a TV. (Submitted by Sean Towgood)

It has my smart speaker, my gaming system (a crucial item in a pandemic), my laptop and a TV. I have just about everything I need to while away the hours. And at a time like this, that's really what we need.

Above all, be okay with this. You just can't be as productive as you normally have been and that's fine. You're still a good person.

Connect, connect, connect

So you've organized your space. Now what? Connect, connect, connect.

I know a lot of you have discovered this, but just because you're isolated, it doesn't mean that you have to be alone. It's often said that the best inventions end up serving very different purposes than the ones they were created for.

One of the bright sides of this isolation is that it comes in the age of technology. The whole world is connected. Reach out, catch up, talk, take a class online.

Compared to my regular isolation times, these days are like going from the Sleepy Time Motel to the Penthouse suite at the Ritz. Everywhere you look there are free theatre broadcasts, yoga classes, creative brainstorm sessions, intimate, at-home concerts by your favourite artists.

For me, the movement towards online-based classes might be the biggest silver lining. As a person with a disability in the city, the physical barriers that have existed for me are no longer there.

Sean Towgood sitting on his balcony. (Submitted by Sean Towgood)

I have the same access to activities as everyone else. There are so many different ways to connect. I no longer have to worry about how to McGyver my way up three flights of stairs to attend an acting class or a comedy club.

Do you know how many comedy clubs in Toronto are wheelchair accessible? Not very many. Now, it's completely socially acceptable to do stand up comedy in the comfort of your own home and people will tune in to watch it.

I've even taken up chess. I've been mercilessly destroyed by my family members and by perfect strangers alike.

Be adaptable

This one is probably the most important. Of course it is. That's why I left it till the end. Be adaptable.

For most of my life, I've had certain expectations about how I wanted things to go. As I got older, I realized that as a person with a disability who is so reliant on outside help, that it's a bit of a fool's errand. And so, I've learned to roll with the punches.

I've had a lot of people ask me if I ever get mad about having a disability. The answer is: no. I learned a long time ago that there's no point in being angry over something you can't control. Whether it's uncertain bus schedules, inclement weather, house parties that you can't go to because they're up three flights of stairs, support people cancelling at the last minute — you have to learn to adapt.

At a time like this, when our "new normal" is clear, shift expectations into the new framework: keep it simple. And know that there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

If the worst thing you have to deal with today is that your hair becomes a little unruly or you have to stand in line for a few extra minutes at the grocery store for groceries that will be there, then you're doing pretty well today.

Find a restful place

Get out of your main space. This might just mean going out on the balcony. Or into your backyard. Just something that feels like you're moving with purpose away from work and into a restful place.

Thanks for joining me at my self-isolation station. I don't usually have this much company here.

About the Producer

(Althea Manasan/CBC)

Sean Towgood is a radio maker, disability advocate, actor and sports fan. In his spare time he has done play-by-play for Humber Sports and some stand-up comedy. Towgood is the recipient of a silver Emerge Media Award for the radio documentary, Stigma.



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