COVID-19 and the Disability Community

Posted on Wednesday, 22 April 2020 by Marissa Sapega

As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, no one remains untouched by its wrath. While many of us are lucky to be able to transition to working from home and virtually connecting with friends and family, many people with disabilities find that their already challenging world has become even more difficult to navigate. These difficulties range from discrimination from restaurants and other service providers, to distance learning barriers, to potential life-threatening medical situations.

Drive-through business operations discriminate against the visually impaired

The National Federation of the Blind, the civil rights organization for blind individuals in America, has documented several occasions upon which businesses that now offer drive-through services during the COVID-19 pandemic have actively discouraged or refused service to blind people on foot.

Mark Riccobono, President of the National Federation of the Blind, notes that “. . .Even if a restaurant, bank, or [COVID-19] testing center is unable or unwilling to offer pedestrian access to its drive-through window, the law clearly requires that it offer reasonable modifications to allow the blind and others with disabilities to take advantage of its public services. The bottom line is that, especially at a time when access to vehicle transportation for non-drivers is limited, there is no legal or moral excuse for denying service to blind people simply because we are not in a car.”

“Crisis standards of care” are cause for concern for disability community

The Center for Public Integrity reviewed policies from 30 states that provide guidance on how to ration ventilators if the situation arises. The outcome was concerning for people with disabilities and their loved ones, as many states have policies that could be interpreted as discriminating against individuals with certain medical conditions.

For example, until advocates recently protested, Alabama had a state policy that people with severe mental retardation “might be poor candidates” for ventilators. In response to a flurry of complaints filed by disability advocates, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services published a bulletin indicating that states should not discriminate when determining care. Roger Severino, director for the Office of Civil Rights, specifically addressed this concern in the document, stating “Persons with disabilities, with limited English skills, or needing religious accommodations should not be put at the end of the line for health services during emergencies.”

Individuals who are both deaf and blind face severe challenges

People like Haben Girma, a disability rights lawyer and the first DeafBlind person to graduate from Harvard Law School, is deeply concerned about the mental and physical repercussions of social distancing. The lack of physical touch during a time when everyone is required to stay six feet apart is a major hardship for her and others like her. “All my life I struggled with isolation. . . The current isolation brings back the old fears that never entirely flee,” she said.

The health implications of this order is also a cause for concern for DeafBlind people. Rossana Reis is worried about how she might be able to communicate with medical personnel if she needs to go to a hospital. “I’ve been reading stories of how doctors speak behind glass and not sure how much the mic will transmit speech into text from a distance. Would the medical staff be willing to type on my device, if it comes to that? . . . Otherwise, I’m learning that many hospitals across the nation are not allowing interpreters in treatment areas. That would be problematic for me, as I am not able to rely on video remote interpreting.”

Special education distance learning is falling short

In Texas, almost 10% of students receive special education services. With schools closed for the foreseeable future, that leaves almost half a million children without the formal support of trained teachers. School districts are attempting to fill the gaps created by the pandemic, but the results are grim. Some districts are training all teachers to adapt their lesson plans to accommodate children with disabilities, but that alone cannot fill the void of hands-on instruction.

The mother of 14-year-old Logan Heller, Robyn Garza, is facing a dire situation. Logan is prone to meltdowns and regular self-injuries, and while the school has offered instructional videos to help continue his speech therapy, Ms. Garza has four other children to care for. “I made it clear to them that there’s no homeschooling happening in my house, even for my general education kiddos, because we’re all in survival mode,” she said.

As we all struggle to adapt to our “new normal,” it is critical to accommodate people of all abilities. At The Paciello Group, we partner with organizations of all shapes and sizes to improve their digital accessibility. It’s up to all of us to create a world in which people with disabilities have equal access – and as this crisis has demonstrated, a world in which everyone has the equal opportunity to be healthy and safe.


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