Column: We must protect people with disabilities during the COVID-19 crisis

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According to the latest U.S. census American Communities Survey, there are 1.4 million Michiganders with disabilities, including 126,001 Detroiters or roughly 19% of the city.

This is important as the World Health Organization (WHO) issued guidance that people with disabilities are at greater risk of contracting COVID-19 because of physical barriers to accessing hygiene, difficulty in enacting social distancing, the need to touch things to obtain information or for physical support, barriers to accessing public health information and care and the potential for exacerbation of underlying health conditions.

Now add ableism, or discrimination in favor of the able-bodied, along with a history of eugenics, stigma and bias, and the challenges for people with disabilities during this crisis grows exponentially. To help ensure a more equitable COVID-19 response, here are three things our elected officials can do to help protect people with disabilities during this pandemic.

The first is track disability data. Disability is a key social characteristic that cuts across race, ethnicity, gender, national origin, sexual orientation and religious affiliation, but it does not appear to be tracked by the state as part of their COVID-19 response. It should be.

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Hospitals record co-morbidities and pre-existing conditions — if the state could capture such information, they could explore correlations across social characteristics, uncover disparities and work to produce tailored solutions.

For example, we’re witnessing a disproportionate impact of COVID-19 upon the African American community. Hypothetically, if the state were to acquire disability data and find that more d/Deaf or Hard of Hearing, visually disabled or cognitively disabled African Americans were infected, then, armed with new awareness, they could change their approach and begin to re-attack.

The second action is issuing an executive order that civil rights are non-negotiable. On March 28, the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued a bulletin stating: “Persons with disabilities should not be denied medical care on the basis of stereotypes, assessments of quality of life, or judgements about a person’s relative ‘worth’ based on the presence or absence of disabilities or age.”

The office acted because disability advocates filed complaints against Alabama and Washington as both had previously adopted health care protocols that were widely viewed as discriminatory. Because Michigan lacks forthright, binding guidance for ethical rationing during public health emergencies, like this pandemic, this presents an opportunity for our elected officials to act.

Therefore, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer should issue an executive order, in line with the OCR bulletin, resolving that Michigan health care systems commit to clear, fair and nondiscriminatory approaches for the allocation of scarce medical resources, and that such approaches uphold our civil rights and are mindfully guided by the use of unacceptable allocation criteria such as social characteristics or social worth. This message must be loud and clear.

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The last action is ensuring the COVID-19 response is proactively disability conscious: On March 26, the WHO published, “Disability considerations during the COVID-19 outbreak.” The guidance provides mitigation advice including actions for people with disabilities and their households, actions for elected officials, actions for health care workers, actions for disability service providers, and actions for the community at large.

Although this is not the only guidance for people with disabilities, it is comprehensive and straightforward. If elected officials are looking for a proactive starting point, they should review this information and move to adopt recommendations to implement post haste.

Pandemics force hard decisions. However, people with disabilities have fought for decades to secure civil rights, be counted and raise the consciousness of a country that dismissed them.

We cannot, even in crisis, abandon this progress. Therefore, we ask officials to implement the suggestions above until there’s a cure for this virus and all others.