The disabled community has struggled with safety issues and disregard for their welfare among both the general public and lawmakers for decades. Their accessibility, financial support, absence of harm, health equity, and more remain paramount, while government policies and other facets of society consistently fail to prioritize them. Even as many of their able-bodied coworkers, employers, and government officials insist on a “return to normal,” the risks that disabled people navigate in every aspect of their lives have only been heightened in the workplace, where the environments that were already hazardous are exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Approximately 15% of the world’s population has a disability, with 26% of adults in the U.S. identifying with one. Among disabled people in the U.S, 33.8% are employed, whether it be part-time, full-time, work-from-home, or otherwise. The lack of accommodations, accessibility, and care disabled people face existed before the pandemic, reflecting the systems, environments, and interactions that view them as disposable. Workplace safety for disabled people is an afterthought for management, leading to charges and legal suits. Disability charges increased significantly from 33.4% in 2019 to 36.1% in 2020. Over the past 20 years there has been a rise in charges for violating disability access, which continues to highlight employers’ failures to adhere to safety regulations enforced by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and the efforts to cut costs—a grim reality of how the concerns of capitalism are prioritized over ensuring disabled workers’ safety.
This normalized dismissal of disabled workers and their needs is what Kate, a West Michigan biller for a national health care system, has experienced. As a disabled person with myasthenia gravis (MGF), fibromyalgia, endometriosis, adenomyosis, suspected Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, Kate is on an immunosuppressant infusion for MGF, but the efforts to facilitate her needs weren’t immediately granted by her employer.
“When I was working, my company allowed pretty much everyone to work from home [in the pandemic],” Kate said. “This was, however, after I had fought for months to get an accommodation to work from home part-time, but they denied that.”
The needs of disabled and immunocompromised persons oftentimes are denied or facilitated far after the initial request because employers often view those accommodations as unnecessary additional expenses or a loss in productivity. This hostile norm in the workplace has only increased disabled workers’ worries about what they’ll face in their jobs when their requests aren’t prioritized, especially as the pandemic continues. Instead, disabled workers are forced to navigate harmful spaces for their survival. The risks they face are exacerbated by their employers’ lack of response and failure to adhere to guidelines meant to keep disabled workers safe.
Excluding disabled persons on health measures
As the pandemic continued, specific health protocols like mask-wearing in public spaces, hand washing and sanitization of surfaces, and eventually COVID-19 vaccinations and boosters were established. Rather than keeping these safety protocols in place to control the spread of the virus, the CDC has mostly dropped their masking recommendation, and states have abandoned contact tracing and vaccine mandates. However, these changes have severely impacted the disabled community’s safety. While some people may view those changes as an indication that things are heading in the right direction, for disabled folks like Kate, lifting protective measures doesn’t create a strong sense of security—it does the opposite.
“In Michigan, they lifted the mask mandate a couple months ago, and I hate it,” Kate said. “I barely go out anymore, and usually only for important things like medical appointments. It scares me how few people here are still wearing masks.”
In addition to Michigan, states like New York have adjusted their guidelines to drop hotels, grocery stores, and pharmacies from the state mask mandate, and Rhode Island aims to lift the mask mandate in indoor settings and schools. These changes prioritize the comfort of able-bodied people over the safety of disabled people, even in their working environments. The alterations to previous safety guidelines fail to acknowledge how the push to return to “normalcy” is hazardous to disabled communities, especially with the emergence of new COVID-19 variants like Omicron.
Disabled people’s needs are also often ignored in workplace sanitation requirements, especially in the service industries and other fields that involve a vast number of thoroughfares. While Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) guidelines require that sanitation measures must be followed at all times, not everyone can maintain necessary hygiene practices in the same way. Employers are responsible for providing accessible hygiene practices, but those options aren’t facilitated in workplaces. Having a stationed hygiene system with no provision for assistance means that not everyone can follow safety requirements at their places of employment through no fault of their own.
Furthermore, CDC decisions around vaccination requirements regularly lack consideration for the impact of those policies on disabled and immunocompromised communities. For example, disabled people weren’t prioritized in the implementation of COVID-19 vaccines when states received emergency use authorization, and this pattern remains in the ongoing enforcement of vaccination mandates. Also, while the CDC recommends most immunocompromised people receive additional vaccine boosters, government and health officials continue to misunderstand the varying circumstances and needs of disabled and immunocompromised communities by insisting on “one size fits all” approaches to vaccination roll-outs and policies. Due to the variety of health needs immunocompromised and disabled people have and the different barriers they face in accessing care, reliance on vaccination alone isn’t enough protection in a pandemic.
Not taking a holistic approach to evaluating the effects of vaccination requirements and exemptions that includes the impacts on disabled and immunocompromised communities leads to inequities in policy implementation and in who bears the weight of adhering to those policies. For instance, confirming what conditions qualify for vaccination exemptions can depend on the specific available vaccine types, and applying for them can be an onerous and complicated task. Even after an exemption is obtained, disabled people are still expected to carry the financial responsibility for their own safety and adhere to additional measures required by their employers. Requirements by some agencies, like the Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) in the Philippines, state that unvaccinated workers must provide a negative PCR test periodically—typically every two weeks—at their own expense. These kinds of workplace practices require disabled employees to pay out of their own pockets to continue working. They may have to weigh being able to pay for medical necessities and care against being able to pay for tests that will allow them to keep their jobs. The pay disparities disabled people experience, especially if they’re BIPOC, only add to the financial burden that disabled workers are expected to bear if they want to remain employed.
Exacerbating health inequities
With so many barriers in place, disabled workers are left on their own to navigate environments and conditions that are detrimental to their well-being in order to work, socialize, and generally live their lives. While the CDC reports that disabled persons generally aren’t inherently more susceptible to contracting COVID-19, the existing socio-economic and health inequities that affect disabled people place them at higher risk. Disabled people can be more susceptible to the virus if they’re undergoing treatment or have conditions that may lessen a vaccine’s effectiveness, work in environments that reduce their access to care, or deal with geographical constraints such as a lack of safe and reliable transportation. And yet workplaces still don’t fully recognize these lived realities, which only increases the inequities disabled people already deal with.
The health inequities that affect disabled workers are only magnified for disabled BIPOC, women, and LGBTQ+ people. A study shows that the COVID-19 mortality rate is 2.1 times higher for Black Americans than their white counterparts, and hospitalization rates for Latinx people were 4.6 times greater, reflecting the structural racism that contributes to health inequities. The pandemic only emphasized the difficulty these communities face in ensuring their needs are met while also dealing with the drive for profit under capitalism. With pre-existing constraints such as being unable to access health care due to work schedules and provider locations, limited care options due to facility restructuring, discriminatory acts and policies, and more, these communities are being left even further behind in the drive to return to a “normal” that was only truly comfortable and profitable for a select few.
Charis Hill recently asked, “Everyone wants the pandemic to end, but how are chronically ill and other disabled people faring?” As they pointed out, the current attempts by officials, employers, and other leaders to recreate some semblance of normalcy don’t include the safety and care of disabled people. Exclusionary efforts to “move on” that erase disabled people from the picture reinforce persisting health inequities.
It’s imperative to include disabled people in all steps of the decision-making processes around pandemic policies. Ongoing analyses must acknowledge that disability isn’t a monolith and include considerations for how various disabilities affect one’s ability to navigate the pandemic. These factors must also be reinforced by employers, the CDC, and OSHA in order to end the cycle of treating disabled workers as disposable and instead validate their need for safety, care, and resources.
For disabled communities, “moving on” from COVID-19 isn’t an option until they too can exist safely in occupational and public spaces, rather than be disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. These inequities will only continue unless real, tangible efforts are made to dismantle the current systems in place.