Disabilities and the Pandemic

By Daria Valova-Lynch

Policy only moves when people put their bodies on the line.

While many Britons and Americans are rejoicing at life returning to some kind of “normalcy” after over a year of the Covid pandemic, others feel left behind and, more than that, feel their lives are being put at risk. For people living with disabilities, “the pandemic is far from over,” says attorney Stephanie Woodward, (co-founder of the Disability EmpowHer Network and former Director of Advocacy for the Center for Disability Rights). But it is not just in this moment of reopening that disabled individuals feel they are being forgotten. For disability rights advocate Nathaniel Baldo (NY), it’s clear that the pandemic has magnified structural inequalities that had already impacted the lives of disabled members of the society.

Just as schools and childcare centers closed when the pandemic struck, so too did day centers for disabled adults, leaving many without a space to receive aid outside the home.

Throughout the pandemic, disabled folk have been dealing with issues far more extreme than their able bodied friends and coworkers, and often with far fewer (if any) resources. Baldo notes that the Covid crisis exacerbated the already strained structure of disability services. Just as schools and childcare centers closed when the pandemic struck, so too did day centers for disabled adults, leaving many without a space to receive aid outside the home. Health and home care workers were underfunded and underappreciated, but closings meant the aid shortage was exacerbated. This issue created deep concern for disability rights advocates who fight for the right for disabled people to work and the right to live in their own home. Baldo notes too that many services are provided based on financial status, that oftentimes to receive medical support, a disabled individual is expected not to hold a job. This, of course, disregards the population that hold a job but need assistance with other elements of daily life, or indeed those individuals who work but face high medical expenses due to the US healthcare system. 

Woodward knows first hand how invisible disabled people are to politicians. She was present at the 2017 protest against Republican’s latest healthcare plan, a proposal that would cut some $800 billion to Medicaid. Participants of the protest, many of whom live with disabilities, staged a “die-in” outside former Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office. While protesting with ADAPT, a disability rights organization, Woodward was forcibly removed from her wheelchair. Though the police mishandling received widespread news coverage, and widespread criticism, Woodward was arrested a further three times in the following weeks. In the end, Woodward and her colleagues succeeded and the bill failed, but Woodward noted that policy only moves when people put their bodies on the line. 

This issue is experienced differently across class, racial, and gender lines, and, needless to say, differently according to one’s disability. Middle class disabled people, for example, have seen improvements in their day to day lives. A New York Times article published in August 2020 highlights how virtual events and remote work has made many elements of life more accessible to people living with disabilities (“When the World Shut Down, They Saw It Open,” Zoe Berry). Accommodation for remote work and distance learning was something many disabled individuals struggled to access for years, and often with no success. “We [have] demanded the right to work or learn remotely for years, and we were always told it wouldn’t be possible because it would be too difficult to accommodate, and the quality wouldn’t be the same. Suddenly when it’s safer for everyone, remote work isn’t just possible, but companies and schools say it’s just as effective as in-person,” Woodward said, noting how glad she is to work from home. Not only can she reach more students through online teaching, she finds she faces less discrimination by holding Zoom meetings. These have allowed her to earn new legal clients who might not know that she uses a wheelchair. But, Woodward says, many disabled people who have rejoiced over the ability to work remotely are worried these benefits may be lost when businesses and schools reopen for in-person work once again. Many universities are demanding students return to campus in the fall, and companies are once again requiring employees to return to the office. Disability rights advocates are anxious the successes they’ve achieved during the pandemic will be wiped away and they will have to start their fight back at square one. 

But remote work is not always an option for lower-income disabled individuals. Many are essential workers and have continued to conduct in-person work. People with many disabilities are already more at risk of contracting Covid, and working anywhere in-person only increases this risk. Furthermore, a large proportion of lower-income workers are BIPOC/BAME. For disabled members of these communities, inequalities have only been exacerbated during the pandemic. Even for those individuals who are able to work remotely, the experiences are not all positive. The pandemic has placed more pressure on disabled women, as indeed all women, who have found their work-life balance severely impacted. Women are expected to pick up more housework and childcare responsibilities without seeing any extra support from employers. 

Woodward and Baldo both noted that the difficulties disabled people have faced through the pandemic could be reduced if disabled individuals were included in pandemic task forces. Disabled individuals have not received specific governmental support, testing sites are often inaccessible, and, perhaps most shockingly, the vaccine rollout in the United States did not recognize people with disabilities as a priority group. Of course, even if they had, the CDC does not yet have data to confirm whether many individuals with autoimmune diseases can safely receive the vaccine. And other individuals live with health and mobility issues that may prevent them from getting to a vaccination site.

So how can governments, employers, schools, or concerned citizens best support their disabled neighbors? For Woodward and Baldo, the solution is simple: include disabled individuals in conversations and decisions on all levels of civic life. Policy makers, employers, and educators must base actions on lived experiences. We at Global Goalscast will continue to strive to include disabled individuals in our stories. 

CDC Vaccine Guidelines – https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/vaccines/recommendations/underlying-conditions.html?s_cid=10485:who%20should%20not%20get%20covid%20vaccine:sem.ga:p:RG:GM:gen:PTN:FY21