The COVID19 pandemic has disrupted many aspects of our daily lives, but its impacts are especially acute for people living with disabilities.
For people with disabilities all the general challenges that come with the pandemic apply but there are additional barriers.
The first is communication – getting information can be more difficult for people with vision, hearing, and even cognitive disabilities as news sources may not be accessible especially when information is changing quickly thus they are being sidelined. Use of masks can make communication more difficult for patients with hearing loss.
The second barrier involves adopting recommended public health strategies such as physical distancing and washing hands. Frequent hand-washing is not always feasible with certain types of physical disabilities. Those who have personal aides and care givers also need to be considered as they cannot participate on social distancing in the same way as others are.
The third barrier – equitable access to health care that has worsened with COVID 19. This ranges from getting a corona virus test to being seen in an emergency room.The allocation of medical resources is also a source of concern, there’s a fear that allocation of ventilators may be discriminatory against patients with disabilities and complaints have been filed in various states about these rationing policies. This issue echoes an underlying misconception that people with disabilities cannot have a high quality of life and therefore their lives may not be prioritized.
There has been a shift towards tele-health for non urgent medical visits. We must ensure that tele-health visits are accessible to persons with vision and hearing loss and other disabilities in order to maintain equity in health care. A transition to tele-health could open the door to a more accessible health care system for who are differently abled.
People with disabilities have often been not considered in a disaster or pandemic planning, we need to learn from this crisis and ensure disability is part of future pandemic planning.
Persons who receive in-home care need to make sure that they have contingency plans for their care needs in case a caregiver falls ill. Instead of many rotating caregivers for an individual, one person should be assigned for a longer period of time.
What’s really important is to engage the individual as well as the disability community at the policy level. Whenever we are talking about inequity or differences disability is part of the discussion but this is seriously being ignored. Many people with disabilities are at a high risk of COVID19 but their perspectives are not being included in the efforts to address inequities.This includes the unique challenges of this community during this crisis.
We also need disability data, there is currently no systematic reporting of COVID 19 testing, infection, mortality or outcomes by disability status. For persons with disabilities- an often ignored health disparity population they do not get counted. Disability data is infrequently collected in this type of public health and medical surveillance which limits opportunities to address disability equities.
My hope is that COVID 19 will bring more understanding, inclusion, and opportunity to persons who are differently able.