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Disability and the Pandemic

Updated: Sep 2, 2020

Syeda Zareen Rafa

There is no doubt that the suffering caused by COVID-19 and the resultant lock-down is universal. However, while it is hard on us all, some of us, especially marginalised communities like those with disabilities, suffer to an even greater degree.

Like most viruses, the one we are currently dealing with is deadlier for people with pre-existing health issues. For COVID-19, the death rate can be over ten times greater amongst people with underlying conditions compared to that amongst those who are healthy (McKay, 2020). Particularly for people with disabilities, pre-existing conditions such as diabetes, asthma, and heart disease are all too common, largely due to lower average income and a greater degree of social isolation which results in limited access to quality healthcare (Dickinson and Kavanagh, 2020)

Even without thinking about the aftermath of catching the virus, prevention from catching it in the first place is a cause for concern. Unfortunately, something as basic and essential as access to information about the virus during this pandemic can be a challenge for those with cognitive disabilities or visual impairment, since presentation of health information in accessible formats such as Easy English or formats compatible with screen reading technology is rare (McQuigge, 2020).

In addition to this, many households living with a member who has a disability depend on direct support workers such as nurses and other caregivers in everyday life. Without adequate personal protective equipment for these workers, their movement across multiple homes poses the threat of transmission of the virus (Dickinson and Kavanagh, 2020).

Perhaps the most concerning, however, is the fact that with the huge spike in demand for healthcare at the moment, hospitals are increasingly having to face the tough possibility of rationing out health services. When this remains as the only option, guidelines for medical practitioners say decisions should be made on what the probable outcome is, and factors such as underlying health conditions and “burden of treatment” on the patient and their family become important considerations. Even without an explicit mention of people with disabilities in such guidelines, they may fall to the rear end of the list of who is prioritised to receive healthcare (Dickinson and Kavanagh, 2020).

However, as many have pointed out, these misfortunes are not unavoidable. In addition to stimulus packages and other financial aid, a lot can be done to help. First and foremost, it is indispensable to create hotlines and other sources which provide accessible information about the pandemic for those with intellectual and other disabilities, since accurate information is essential to preventing transmission of the virus. In addition, as we continue to see a rising shortage of healthcare workers everywhere, it is important to remember that the availability of home health workers who care for the disabled is also scarce. Measures can be taken to address this problem by, for example, drawing on health students (Dickinson and Kavanagh, 2020). Of course, supplying personal protective equipment to these workers is also of utmost importance. Finally, as it becomes difficult for support workers to reach homes and provide care for people with disabilities, paid leave for family members to step in and help out with care in this difficult time is vital (Cokley, 2020).



McKay, Betsy. "Who’s Most At Risk From The Coronavirus." WSJ, The Wall Street Journal, 14 Mar. 2020,


Dickinson, Helen and Kavanagh, Anne. "People With A Disability Are More Likely To Die From Coronavirus – But We Can Reduce This Risk." The Conversation, 25 Mar. 2020,


McQuigge, Michelle. "Disabled Canadians Feel Excluded From COVID-19 Messaging." Coronavirus, CTV News, 18 Mar. 2020, https://www.ctvnews.ca/health/coronavirus/disabled-canadians-feel-excluded-from-covid-19-messaging-1.4857691.

Cokley, Rebecca. "Coronavirus Proposals Leave The Disability Community Behind." Center for American Progress, 27 Mar. 2020, https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/disability/news/2020/03/27/482378/coronavirus-proposals-leave-disability-community-behind/.

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