The coronavirus pandemic has exposed and exacerbated many underlying patterns of inequality in the U.S.—and disability-related inequities are no exception.
While the disabled community is often overlooked in public discourse and policy alike, around 1 in 4 American adults is disabled. The CDC reports that disabled people are around three times likelier to have a pre-existing condition that puts them at risk of developing complications if they contract COVID-19.
In addition to well-founded fears about public health risks, healthcare rationing, and discrimination in triage, disabled people face unique obstacles when it comes to COVID-19 and work. The tension between navigating health risks and weathering economic instability is one that disabled workers already know all too well.
Widespread inaccessibility, as well as employers’ underlying biases about disabled workers, often keep them from progressing in their careers. Meanwhile, many disabled workers rely on caregivers, paid or unpaid, for daily help with necessities like dressing and bathing—which can, ironically, make the process of both getting to and keeping a job both expensive and time-consuming. Even outside of the context of a pandemic, disabled employees often have to navigate a delicate balancing act that pairs economic insecurity with a sometimes-precarious grip on the right to independent living.
Amid the Coronavirus pandemic, this already barely-tenable situation has been laid bare and pushed to its breaking point. Rebecca Cokley, Director of the Disability Justice Initiative at the Center for American Progress, explains: “[The COVID-19 pandemic] has definitely impacted people who use personal assistance services, and those PAS workers may be unavailable either due to their own illness, caregiving for a loved one, or closure of their provider agency.” For disabled working parents, the impact of losing these services may be even more devastating.
Home health care workers are themselves often relegated to marginalized and precarious situations. A recent survey by the Home Care Association of America suggests that the majority of home health aides lack access to personal protective equipment like masks and gloves, thus risking their health as well as the health of those they work with. With nationwide worker shortages, few protections for disabled people and aides alike, and few or no alternatives if a caregiver is ill or unavailable, many disabled people and their home care workers are having to make difficult decisions about risking exposure, financial devastation, or both.
Disabled adults may also disproportionately face public health risks at work. According to the Census Bureau, disabled people are likelier than non-disabled people to work in low-wage jobs and service occupations—such as retail and food service—and to work one or multiple part-time jobs instead of at a full-time job with benefits. In addition to being more vulnerable to coronavirus-related layoffs, many of the service jobs in which disabled workers are disproportionately concentrated have been deemed “essential.” Still, many don’t provide frontline workers with hazard pay or personal protective equipment.
The shift to remote work, too, carries its own challenges for disabled employees. In addition to the problem of digital inaccessibility in many remote (or remote-for-now) workplaces, disabled employees whose workplaces begin to open up again may face difficult choices about how they’re perceived at work. Cokley explains, “Disability rights is never about ‘special treatment,’ yet it’s being framed that way in certain contexts throughout the pandemic.” Employees who have the choice to return to a brick-and-mortar workplace may fear stalling their careers or looking like they’re not “team players” if they don’t return right away, despite their higher risk of health complications.
The disability housing crisis, too, puts some disabled workers at risk of isolation, job loss, or institutionalization. Disabled people are less likely than non-disabled people to own their own homes, due in part to both economic insecurity and the lack of accessible homes available.
What’s more, many disabled people are forced into congregate care settings unnecessarily. These settings account for a third of coronavirus-related deaths in the U.S., making this an even more harrowing prospect. Meanwhile, some disabled workers who live in group homes have had to take leave from their jobs due to the risk of exposure.
Cokley argues that a multi-pronged approach to addressing these layered social issues is necessary. “Given the two-fer of a recession and a pandemic, we need to bolster the social safety net and restore the cuts to the SNAP program,” she says. “We also need a national jobs strategy that includes a focus on home and community-based services and childcare workers.”
Moreover, disabled people have, thus far, been largely forgotten in (and sometimes explicitly excluded from) relief bills and stimulus packages. The Coronavirus Relief for Seniors and People with Disabilities Act of 2020, recently proposed by Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) and Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-MI-12), would help to combat at least some of the problems faced by disabled people and seniors during the pandemic. The Senate bill would provide home health care workers with added protections like overtime pay and improve access to home- and community-based services for seniors and disabled people, among other measures.
Longer-term solutions will require changes like Medicaid expansion, a renewed commitment to accessible workplaces, community integration, and a shift in our underlying ableist attitudes about disability and work. Still, the proposed bill would represent some acknowledgement of the unique forms of discrimination and precarity faced by many disabled people amid COVID-19.