Disability advocates condemn GOP senator protesting deaf Detroiters’ eligibility for COVID vaccines

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Updated, 1:48 p.m., 3/2/21, with comment from Lt. Gov. Gilchrist

During an especially testy session Thursday in the Michigan Senate — which eventually ended with the passage of a controversial $727 million supplemental funding bill including conservative amendments — GOP lawmakers used their floor speeches to criticize the state’s vaccine distribution that prioritizes vulnerable populations based on factors like race and income.

State Sen. Tom Barrett (R-Potterville) also attacked Detroit’s initiative last week to open up the city’s vaccination queue to adults with disabilities, including those with vision or hearing impairments, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and others.

Sens. Tom Barrett and Peter MacGregor at the Fiscal Year 2020 budget presentation in 2019 | Casey Hull

Research from Johns Hopkins University has shown that people with intellectual and developmental disabilities across — all age groups — are three times more likely to die from COVID-19 than the rest of the population.

“Throughout committee testimony, we were promised that people would not be eligible to jump ahead of their priority group status to gain access to the vaccine before those who were more vulnerable were offered and given the option to receive it,” Barrett said on Thursday.

“But yesterday … the city of Detroit announced that people with a hearing impairment, regardless of age or comorbidity status, can now receive the vaccine because of the volume of doses the city has received. Meanwhile, just a few dozen miles away in Brighton, those of an elderly population still have not been granted access to the vaccine because their county ranks at the very bottom of the Social Vulnerability Index,” Barrett continued.

The supplemental spending bill passed Thursday included a controversial GOP requirement that Michigan stop using the Social Vulnerability Index (SVI) to inform where it distributes vaccines. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) established the index decades ago in an attempt to provide more equitable support to vulnerable populations during emergencies.

John Roach, spokesperson for Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, defended the city’s new policy in an email to the Advance Friday.

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“The City of Detroit is very proud to be a national leader in vaccinating the disabled community. We recognize the difficulties some surrounding suburbs have had getting vaccines, so the Mayor helped by making vaccines immediately available to anyone 55 or older if they accompany a Detroit friend 60 or older to get the shot,” Roach said.

“Instead of spending time trying to deny vaccine shots to the disabled, 700 people in the last two days got their vaccine by being a good neighbor to a Detroit senior,” he added.

In a statement, Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist said Republican lawmakers’ attempts to get rid of the SVI will not stop the state from distributing vaccines equitably.

“The State of Michigan is following the CDC’s guidance on vaccine distribution, which has been used in both red and blue states, to ensure that the most vulnerable residents, including seniors, have priority for vaccines,” Gilchrist said. “It’s odd that Senate Republicans think they know better than our nation’s top epidemiologists and infectious disease experts when it comes to the science and data of protecting our most vulnerable residents.”

Gilchrist added that the GOP-led state Legislature should pass the MI COVID Recovery Plan to further expand the state’s vaccine program.*

Those with visual disabilities may also face an increased challenge in receiving COVID-19 vaccines, as not all local and state websites offering vaccination appointments are accessible to visually impaired residents.

A recent investigation by the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) found that out of 94 COVID-19 vaccine websites from all 50 states and the District of Columbia, nearly all of them had accessibility issues.

Alfredo Hernandez, equity officer for the Michigan Department of Civil Rights (MDCR), said in an email Monday that Michigan has been following the best scientific and medical expertise since the beginning of COVID-19 to mitigate the virus in marginalized communities.

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That includes, Hernandez said, “acknowledging the complex intersectionality of vulnerability throughout our communities.”

“The guidance reflects that generally, seniors are more vulnerable than younger people, that front line and essential workers are at greater risk than those of us with limited exposure; that communities of color have been disparately impacted by the virus, and that disability can be a factor in determining a person’s overall vulnerability,” Hernandez said.

“We encourage state and local health departments to affirm the guiding principles from the [Michigan Department of Health and Human Services] state vaccination strategy by ensuring anti-discrimination and equitable practices are in place for vaccination planning and distribution,” he continued, adding that the state’s system of vaccine distribution will “never be perfectly linear” from county to county but should aim to vaccinate from most vulnerable populations to least.

A spokesperson for the Michigan Disability Rights Coalition referred a request for comment to Detroit Disability Power (DDP).

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DDP Policy Director Jeffrey Nolish told the Advance on Friday that Barrett’s criticisms of the SVI and Detroit’s move to prioritize vaccinating residents with disabilities is “unfortunate.”

“Sen. Barrett is assuming that people with hearing disability are less deserving of protection than people who are age 65 and over when both might be at a greater risk due to difficulty enacting social distancing (reading lips through masks is challenging), the need to touch things for information or for physical support, barriers to accessing public health information (there is a shortage of certified American Sign Language interpreters) and care, and aggravation of underlying health conditions,” Nolish said.

“Ableism or discrimination against people with disabilities in favor or non-disabled people is ingrained in our society. … Every day people with disabilities are fighting to be seen, heard and prioritized. Decision-makers should ask themselves if they’re making disabling decisions.”

Barrett did not return a request for further comment.