Disability Rights Movement & COVID-19

Published on: June 17, 2020

The world is facing numerous challenges due to COVID-19. However, people with disabilities are facing extra consequences and obstacles as a result of COVID-19 and healthcare initiatives. People with disabilities are already a vulnerable group  - in terms of both the protection of their rights and their health. Many are susceptible to severe complications of the virus, and advocacy groups are concerned that disability rights are at risk of being compromised.  

There are several advocacy organizations taking the initiative to support disability rights and fight for equal access for people with disabilities to healthcare and resource accessibility . Despite issues facing people with disabilities during this time, there is an ongoing disability rights movement, determined to bring heightened awareness to the challenges facing this vulnerable group during COVID-19 and afterwards. 

What is the International Disability Alliance?

The disability advocacy group International Disability Alliance (IDA) is an association of 14 global and regional organizations who advocate at the United Nations for the rights of persons with disabilities. The diverse range of organizations aligned with the International Disability Alliance include groups such as the World Federation of the Deaf, the Pacific Disability Forum, and Down Syndrome International. 

The IDA works across the United Nations, as well as UNICEF, the World Bank, and the WHO, to ensure that disability rights are being protected and fight against job discrimination to provide equal access for people with disabilities. In the first days of the COVID-19 crisis, the IDA launched the COVID-19 Disability Rights Monitor in order to highlight issues people with disabilities may face during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Common Issues Facing People with Disabilities During COVID-19  

Issues Ensuring Equal Access to Healthcare Services

During the COVID-19 crisis, especially during the peak of the virus, healthcare was given priority to virus patients. People were told to postpone unnecessary and routine appointments and rationing protocols allowed beds and equipment to be sanctioned for COVID-19 use only. However, many people with disabilities need life-saving medical care. Due to the prioritization of COVID-patients in health services, many people with disabilities are worried that they will be unable to access the care and medicine they need. 

Advocacy groups are additionally concerned with hospital emergency protocols. People with disabilities worry that in an emergency, they will be deprioritized compared to other able-bodied patients. In response to legal complaints, the Department of Health and Human Services issued guidelines to hospitals that prevents them from discriminating against patients based on disabilities, whether physical or cognitive. However, activists and people with disabilities are still distressed about discrimination in hospitals. 

Disruptions to Caregiving Services During COVID-19

Many people with disabilities need full-time or part-time caregiving. But caregiving in the time of COVID-19 has had to adjust to a “new normal.” The CDC and other health organizations have strongly stressed the need for social distancing to slow the spread of the virus. Also known as “physical distancing,” social distancing is keeping about a 6 feet distance from other people and avoiding gathering in groups. However, socially distancing may be more difficult for people with disabilities to engage in because of required caregiving support or because they are institutionalized. 

Caregivers need to be extremely careful and continue to take precautionary measures when providing care to people with disabilities until an effective treatment is available. Even people who appear healthy could be asymptomatic and carry the virus with them. People with disabilities that affect their respiratory health are particularly at risk of serious complications or death from COVID-19 since the virus attacks the respiratory system. Many caregivers may be inclined to stop services during the pandemic, but assisted support is necessary for many people with disabilities. In order to keep both themselves and their patients safe, caregivers should take extra measures to ensure safety. This may mean wearing gloves and a cloth mask while providing care, as well as washing hands with soap and water and avoiding large gatherings. 

Barriers due to Accessibilities 

People with disabilities may face barriers to both basic hygiene measures and for educational information about COVID-19. To help reduce risk of transmission of the virus, the CDC recommends hygiene considerations and protection such as wearing a cloth mask when around people and hand-washing with soap and water. However, people with disabilities may have barriers for such protective measures like hand-washing or putting cloth masks on individually. For instance, sinks may be physically inaccessible for a person with disabilities, they may have difficulty rubbing their hands together thoroughly, or they're unable to place a mask on their face securely.  

Additionally, there are concerns that people with disabilities are unable to access important information on COVID-19. Individuals who are deaf, blind, or both, rely heavily on touch or close proximity to others to communicate. Their need to touch things, such as Braille lettering, to obtain information can put their health at risk since touching infected surfaces is an easy way to become infected with the virus. A Human Rights Watch article reported how a legally blind woman faced barriers in accessing COVID-19 information when the resources were not compatible with the magnification technology or screen reading she depends on to communicate with. To enable equal access for people with disabilities to information, resources need to be available in a wide variety of accessible formats.  

What's Being Done to Protect Rights?

The issues facing people with disabilities during COVID-19 have not gone unnoticed, although there is always more to be done. The WHO has put together a briefing on disability considerations during the COVID-19 pandemic, outlining additional actions that need to be taken so that disability rights are protected and people with disabilities are safe. 

Additionally, the IDA’s COVID-19 Disability Rights Monitor is tracking data to monitor how state measures have impacted people with disabilities. Besides a survey that organizations and governments can complete to highlight how disability rights are affected by COVID-19 measures, IDA has launched a COVID-19 Disability Rights Monitor dashboard so people with disabilities can access the latest information with a range of accessibility features.

The IDA also lists ten key recommendations for states to enable equal access for people with disabilities to healthcare and key information during COVID-19: 

  • Persons with disabilities must receive information about infection mitigating tips, public restriction plans, and the services offered, in a diversity of accessible formats with use of accessible technologies.
  • Additional protective measures must be taken for people with certain types of impairment.
  • Rapid awareness raising and training of personnel involved in the response are essential.
  • All preparedness and response plans must be inclusive of and accessible to women with disabilities.
  • No disability-based institutionalization and abandonment is acceptable.
  • During quarantine, support services, personal assistance, physical and communication accessibility must be ensured.
  • Measures of public restrictions must consider persons with disabilities on an equal basis with others.
  • Persons with disabilities in need of health services due to COVID19 cannot be deprioritized on the ground of their disability.
  • OPDs can and should play a key role in raising awareness of persons with disabilities and their families and advocating for disability-inclusive responses to the COVID19 crisis.

With these considerations, the IDA hopes that governments and organizations will become more aware of the consequences and challenges facing people with disabilities due to COVID-19. 

At Disability Experts of Florida, we continue to protect and support the rights of all disabled Americans throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. If you feel your rights have been violated or would like more information about disability benefits, speak with one of our caring advocates today.


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