People with disabilities have disproportionately suffered from the pandemic. We have been devastated medically, through our disability-related vulnerability and dangerous medical responses to it. We have been hindered practically, because of the extra difficulties we face in protecting ourselves. And like everyone else, we have been affected socially by a year of isolation and stress. Disabled people have experienced the pandemic differently, and we are still going to need some different approaches as we reach its end or phase-out.
Here are three key ways to help make the last few months of the pandemic a little easier for persons with disabilities.
- Make vaccines truly accessible.
Since December when the first effective vaccines were announced, disabled people have been arguing to be among the highest priority to get vaccinated when low supplies made rationing necessary. In many states persons with disabilities were excluded for far too long, given the scale of our higher risks and greater hardships. Vaccine eligibility is now available to everyone 12 years of age and older, but too many states were slow to focus on disability as a risk factor.
Of course, eligibility is only part of access. The systems for actually getting the shots need to be accessible too. Lots of elderly and disabled people have had real difficulty registering for appointments because so much of it is done online. While internet applications are instinctive and accessible tools for some disabled people, for others they are barriers in themselves. Poorly-designed and accessible appointment websites have added new layers of frustration and anxiety for many disabled people.
Accessibility at vaccination sites is also critical. Both transportation and on-site accessibility details need to be right all the time, in every location – not just where organizers are extra caring and helpful. Drive-thru sites are perfect for those who can drive or reliably get a ride. Walk-in sites are better for non-drivers, if they are close enough to where people live. But they can be a real challenge and deterrent for people who need wheelchair accessibility, can’t walk a long distance, or are unable to wait in line for a long time.
Meanwhile, some of the most “severely” disabled are at the highest risk for Covid-19, would benefit more than anyone from vaccination right now, but face the steepest barriers to getting vaccines in any of the usual ways. Despite unique complications with storing and properly using some of the vaccines, home vaccination visits will probably be necessary at some point. Hopefully sooner rather than later.
- Give accurate guidance, and freedom to act on it.
Like everyone else, people with disabilities crave clearer information on what we can do safely and responsibly after vaccination.
People with intellectual and developmental disabilities have been in even more of a bind this past year. People who already lived in highly supervised settings, like nursing homes, group homes, and assisted living communities, have had even less personal choice or physical freedom, and often very poor communication about the purpose and rationale for pandemic restrictions. As more of the people they serve get vaccinated, disability agencies that are deeply involved with disabled people’s everyday lives should be thinking even more than before about creating a better balance between protection and independence.
- Give us space as we readjust.
Some disabled and chronically ill people have always had to be extra careful about infections for medical reasons. Others struggled with a mental overload of fear about infection long before Covid-19. With the pandemic, such fears suddenly became more rational and “normal” for everyone. We have all recalibrated our sense of the dangers of infection, and the risks involved in our most basic movements and habits. We are all going to struggle to reset once more to a healthy balance between sensibly protecting ourselves and our community, and holding on to heightened and debilitating fears long after they are really necessary.
If they aren’t quite ready exactly when you are to hug, eat in a restaurant with you, or enjoy a big family reunion, give them time. And don’t laugh at us or get annoyed if we continue wearing a mask in public places, when most everyone else has stopped.
As more workplaces and schools return to full on-site activity, at least some disabled employees and students should be allowed to keep working from home, at least for a while. Maybe permanently if they want to and if the type of work allows. This flexibility can help ease the transition back to “normal,” and also help make “normal” better than it was for disabled people before the pandemic.
Access to vaccines, sound guidance for our own decision making, and patience will all help disabled people get through what we all hope is the final phase of the pandemic.