The COVID-19 virus has impacted the lives of everyone around the world in a variety of ways. However, some people face unique challenges that have large-ranging impacts, particularly individuals with disabilities. Many people with disabilities have underlying medical conditions, such as suppressed immune systems or respiratory concerns that put them at greater risk of health complications resulting from contracting the virus. It can be harder for those with mobility issues to socially distance in public, more difficult to access essential services, and get supplies. Many have had to take additional steps above and beyond CDC guidelines to keep themselves healthy.
There are a variety of risk factors for the disabled community right now. Those with caregivers cannot avoid the additional contact point. Individuals with specific disabilities may not be able to communicate that they are experiencing symptoms making it more difficult to isolate and help them in a timely manner.
The very nature of a pandemic serves to disadvantage many with disabilities further. It is now more than ever that we have to recognize the inequity that exists for those with disabilities. According to the American Psychological Association, "research on past pandemics shows that disabled people find it harder to access critical medical supplies which can become even more challenging as resources become scarce."
Those with disabilities and mobility issues have been forced to adapt to the new climate. Wheelchair users must continuously clean their wheelchairs and take extra care to clean their hands and wheels when out in public. Many have to wear gloves to protect themselves. Many of the temporary setups being used by businesses also have significant accessibility issues. In-store pickup areas and other such creations are often not easily accessible.
For many with disabilities, mental health has also been in greater jeopardy this past year. According to research done by National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine "There are unique stressors and challenges that could worsen mental health for people with disabilities during the COVID-19 crisis."
In particular, those who may depend on outpatient care have not been able to shower, eat regularly, or easily access urgent care due to long waits and the potential of entering a high risk area. People cannot interact freely with others, and for many, this has created a challenging environment for mental health. These barriers further challenge those with mobility issues as many are currently unable to access in-person resources such as healthcare, gyms, and social venues. On top of that, outdoor locations such as parks and trails often have various physical barriers that can make them difficult to access.
The pandemic has brought inequity to the forefront on many occasions. Despite being at higher risk, many of the concerns and issues currently facing the disabled community have not been sufficiently addressed. There continues to be an inequitable response to the virus, leaving those with disabilities in a dangerous position. According to Johns Hopkins, there is currently no reliable data tracking for people with disabilities during the pandemic. This lack of data makes it tremendously challenging to follow the community's underlying issues and close the "health gaps" that have arisen for disabled people in need of care.
It has been a difficult and demanding year for everyone. But as we look forward and continue to reshape our society to fit the new world of COVID-19, we have an opportunity to help shape this new world to be more inclusive. This reshaping can be an opportunity to build with inclusion in mind and make goods, services, and social opportunities more accessible to everyone.
There have been some silver linings over the past year. The spread of telecommuting and the transition to virtual events and conferences has allowed for the lowering of barriers. Not only are events that may have been hosted at inadequate facilities now accessible to so many more people, but the normalization of remote work has lowered the barriers for many and created a more inclusive hiring process. There has also been a variety of changes in healthcare that have had a positive effect on the disabled community. Telehealth and virtual doctors appointments have lowered the stress and cost of care for many. Other services such as wheelchair fittings are now also available virtually. Easier refills for prescriptions and delivery methods have made acquiring medication much easier. Temporary suspension of certain bidding practices used in Medicare and Medicaid has also given people greater access to Durable Medical Equipment (DME).
It is important that we continue the momentum that has been generated. Many of these changes were created out of necessity for a short term solution. It seems as if the changes are likely to remain but it is crucial that we take this opportunity to lobby for greater long term goals such as specific Medicare and Medicaid reform and a more inclusive hiring environment for those with disabilities.
As we begin to see some light at the end of the tunnel during this pandemic, new issues have arisen regarding vaccinations. With the new vaccines' distribution underway, it is important to call ahead and make sure if you are going to a vaccination site that it is accessible for you. The CDC has stated for the vast majority of people with disabilities; there should be no complications with the vaccine and no reason not to be vaccinated if provided the opportunity. However, controversially some states have not chosen to prioritize vaccination for those with disabilities as part of the high risk group, despite evidence that according to the Washington Post people with disabilities are two to three times as likely to die of COVID-19. Debates are ongoing as to which phase the disability community will be eligible for vaccination, unfortunately some states seem to have initially lowered their priority level.