It seemed to happen in the blink of an eye. Accommodations that people with disabilities had requested for years were implemented nearly overnight.
Jobs that were supposedly impossible to accommodate from home could suddenly be worked remotely. Employees who felt sick were no longer asked to prove it with a doctor’s note; they were given the benefit of the doubt and paid to stay home. Telemedicine, or the ability to get health care remotely, was quickly supported with millions of dollars from the federal government.
These changes were, of course, due to the coronavirus pandemic, which turned what were long ignored priorities for disabled and sick people into priorities for everyone.
ChrisTiana ObeySumner is a Seattle-based social equity and intersectional disability justice consultant who has multiple disabilities.
“Where was this urgency and empathy before?” ObeySumner said. “[This experience has shown that] if something is important for [non-disabled people], for their survival, for their protection, they will put that in place.”
“My community is high risk … and trying to survive,” ObeySumner said. “So many of us are at risk of losing our housing, at risk of losing our medical benefits, at risk of losing their lives because of the medical issues, at risk of losing our income (if we haven’t already) at risk of losing our family, our communities, at risk of losing some of our rights and our liberties.”
People with disabilities are one of the most economically vulnerable groups, with lower levels of employment and pay, earning 70% less on average than non-disabled people. These gaps are compounded when you add in other marginalized identities such as race, gender and sexual orientation.
Carrie Basas is a disabled, Seattle-based disability justice advocate. She says people with disabilities are watching the rapid changes and wondering if when the pandemic is over, the accommodations allowed for non-disabled people will continue for disabled people.
“There is that irony now for disabled people … [are we] going to remain in this mode where we start to honor that remote work can still be work, or if when we come back and settle into anything that’s the new normal, if we’ll continue to question that for disabled people.”
In anticipation of a potential shift back to the old ways, disability rights advocates have compiled a “digital paper trail” of all the ways accommodations were made for non-disabled people during the coronavirus outbreak as proof that those accommodations can be achieved when there is a will.
In addition to physical and economic threats from the coronavirus, people with disabilities face another existential threat. Will their lives be seen as valuable if life-saving care begins to be rationed? When there aren’t enough ventilators to go around, will their lives be seen as worth saving? A complaint filed by advocates for people with disabilities last week over Washington state guidelines for potential rationing of care argued that the rules would leave people with disabilities to die.
Basas said the concern is very real. “I don’t trust doctors to value my life the same way that I do,” she said. “[When] you’re disabled, you’re not going to be ranked very high up on that list for getting that care and getting that equipment.”
But communities of sick and disabled people have long been their own strongest advocates and sources of strength and support. People with disabilities have led the way in terms of self advocacy, mutual aid and care for the most vulnerable.
“It is really beautiful that disabled people, who are often really limited when it comes to economic resources, [extend support] to one another — and do outside of times of crisis — because they don’t see shame in relying on one another,” Basas said. “We’re taught that we should, that the goal is to be completely independent, but we realize that’s false.”
As the pandemic continues to reshape all parts of our lives, when it’s over, we don’t have to go back to business as usual. We can have those most affected sitting at the table making decisions for their own lives and advocating for policies that serve everyone. Non-disabled people can and should bring up the needs of disabled community members when they are not in the room. We can all insist that any solution that sacrifices or devalues the lives and contributions of any person or group are not solutions we will accept.