Column: People with disabilities can’t be left behind during the pandemic

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Elected officials must do more to protect people with disabilities during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ten months ago, the World Health Organization issued concerns that people with disabilities were at a greater risk of contracting the coronavirus due to physical barriers to accessing hygiene, difficulty enacting social distancing, touching things for information or for physical support, barriers to accessing public health information and care, and aggravation of underlying health conditions.

Since then, we’ve learned that people with intellectual disabilities and developmental disorders are three times more likely to die from COVID-19 then others who’ve been diagnosed, while people with Down syndrome are 10 times more likely. This year calls for a robust response.

Here are three courses of action elected officials should take to protect the disability community in 2021.

First, governments should track disability-related COVID-19 data. Today, the state of Michigan cannot tell us how many people with disabilities we’ve lost to COVID-19. This is unacceptable. At a minimum, hospitals should be made to record how many patients with hearing, vision, cognitive, ambulatory, self-care and independent living difficulties have been diagnosed with COVID-19. This data could then be used to explore correlations across social characteristics, uncover disparities, and produce tailored identity interventions or even life-saving solutions.

Last fall, the Office for National Statistics confirmed that two thirds of the people who’ve died from the coronavirus in the U.K. were people with disabilities. According to Disability Rights UK, the loss was due to neglect, misapplication of Do Not Resuscitate notices, a lack of care for people with independent living difficulty, infection in congregate care settings, a lack of personal protective equipment and testing, and a lack of food and medicine delivery allowance and infrastructure. If there’s even a remote chance that this could be the reality in America, leaders can’t knowingly look away. Elected officials must pay more attention.

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Next, the state of Michigan should enact an emergency rule to ensure people with disabilities are protected from medical rationing. This rule could:

  • Require transparency of health care provider medical rationing plans.
  • Require review of such plans to ensure that no person is denied medical care on the basis of stereotypes, assessments of quality of life, or judgments about a person’s relative “worth,” including judgements about a person’s worth based on the presence or absence of disability.
  • Establish clear and concrete protocol for people with disabilities to follow if they are discriminated against in real-time.

If health care systems are overwhelmed, it’s likely their patient advocates are overwhelmed, too. This rule could provide redundancies that our marginalized communities deserve.

Lastly, governments should highly prioritize people with disabilities in the vaccination process. With new variants emerging, over 90,000 Americans hospitalized, and over 1,500 people dying from COVID-19 per day, the timing is critical to serve our underserved.

Vaccinations, for those who are eligible and who give consent, can help. Highly prioritizing the disability community means prioritizing vaccinations to all facilities that house people with disabilities, from long-term care settings to group homes, places big and small, licensed and independent; it means prioritizing vaccinations to permanent and temporary caregivers who care for people with disabilities, at home, on the road or in facility; and finally, it means prioritizing people with disabilities at the same level as people with underlying health conditions, people 65 years and older, and people who are unhoused. We, as a country, cannot accept deprioritization of vaccine delivery to the disabled.

These are difficult times. Elected officials must meet what Martin Luther King Jr. called “the fierce urgency of now.” This multi-crisis is testing our humanity. People with disabilities must be a higher priority.