by Bradley W. Williams
17th November 2020

All over the world, people with disabilities are experiencing negative effects to their health caused by COVID-19. Unlike able-bodied citizens, however, disabled people also find their civil rights restricted by their own governments in the name of cost-efficiency. If the goal is a utilitarian sharing of struggle during this hard period in history, then disabled people (estimated to be about 15 per cent of the global population, with 80 per cent of those living in the Global South) should not suffer a disproportionately greater burden than the rest of us.

While not every country has suffered as badly from the pandemic as the US, the growth of conservative governments across the Americas, Europe and elsewhere in the Global North is an indicator of a broader culture of austerity. Disability rights and human rights advocates have described increased cases of abuse towards disabled people all over the world that defy and contradict international human rights laws defined in the 2006 Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the constitutional responsibilities of states.

Governments are still attempting to recover from the 2008 economic depression. The slowdown has encouraged many countries, including the US, the UK and many in the Global South, to implement new austerity measures to reduce government debt and relax the strain on national monetary institutions. Across these countries, the new standards are a reduction of available healthcare and a new justification for establishing hierarchies in healthcare availability based on cost-efficiency that disproportionately affects disabled people.

Due to lack of preparation for the COVID-19 pandemic in the US, hospitals are turning away people with disabilities because their care is considered too costly, as nurses and other health workers are forced to work increased hours with less staff. Disability is also being used to deny healthcare insurance as need soars and healthcare is used as political capital. Furthermore, disabled people are finding disproportionate resistance by employers, so they struggle to pay for the healthcare they can access. Just as importantly, disabled people are often denied access to necessary safety supplies including personal protective equipment for themselves and their caregivers, as well as medication and ventilators.

The pandemic has also made it harder for disabled people to find personal attendants. While attendant shortages occur within institutionalised care facilities, it is even more difficult to secure caregivers for home care. Even before the pandemic, carers were often underpaid and working multiple jobs. Often, carers are undocumented workers with some nursing background or nursing students gaining experience while paying for college studies. The risk of contracting COVID-19 has encouraged many prospective personal attendants to opt for other higher-paying, safer jobs that they can do from home. Governed in part by their own professional ethics, personal attendants do not want to risk higher chances of contracting or transmitting COVID-19 to their patients.

Decades of involuntary institutionalisation has left many disabled people without proper support and these facilities are some of the hardest hit by the pandemic resulting in further isolation, estrangement from society and even death. In both the US and the UK, austerity rationing and institutionalisation have resulted in a dramatic increase in deaths of disabled people despite emergency legislation. In the UK, lawmakers have decried the failings of Parliament to reduce the gaps in healthcare with their Coronavirus Act. According to a two-state study of COVID-19, people with pre-existing intellectual and cognitive disabilities in Pennsylvania and New York are four times more likely than other citizens to contract COVID-19 and subsequently two times more likely to die from the disease.

Evan Odell, research project manager for Disability Rights UK stated in an interview that they’ve failed to keep disabled people in mind with things like social care, personal protective equipment, sign language interpreters at press conferences and providing information in accessible formats. The current approach puts lives at risk and increases the impact of isolation and exclusion from society in a profound way.

Since much of the problem stems from poor governance at executive levels, governments should close the gaps they helped create. The World Health Organization and international advocacy organisations agree on several measures that governments should take at this time. Governments should closely monitor the spread of COVID-19 in communities, release data and information on the number of infections and fatalities and alert health institutions regularly of changing safety protocols. Governments should ensure full access to healthcare on an equal basis with other citizens and provide immediate access to food, PPE and social distancing measures for all citizens, while prioritising disabled and other vulnerable populations. Additionally, they should consider short-term financial support for disability services to ensure they remain financially sustainable if they experience a downturn in their operations.

Governments should also prioritise disability inclusion in the recovering workforce and ensure that disabled people have opportunities to weather the pandemic while remaining in their own communities rather than impose institutionalisation. People with intellectual and developmental disabilities tend to face a greater risk of forced or coerced institutionalisation and are more likely to be forgotten when compared with people with physical and visible disabilities. Researchers have yet to fully understand this disparity as well as its exacerbation by the pandemic. 

Bradley Williams is a contributor to Social Problems in the Age of COVID-19 Volume 2: Global Perspectives edited by Glenn W. Muschert, Kristen M. Budd, David C. Lane and Jason A. Smith.


Social Problems in the Age of COVID-19 Volume 2: Global Perspectives is available on the Policy Press website. Order the EPUB here for £5.59.

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