Challenges on the Disability Community Amid Coronavirus Outbreak

/ Blog Post

By Stephanie Duke, a 2018 Equal Justice Works Fellow in the Disaster Recovery Legal Corps. Stephanie is hosted by Disability Rights Texas.

Photo of Stephanie Duke
Photo of Stephanie Duke

The coronavirus outbreak, also known as COVID-19, has changed the legal landscape. Despite some legal services organizations temporarily closing their physical offices, lawyers are working around the clock over the phone and through email, to help their clients and people with legal needs arising from COVID-19.

The pandemic has created a health emergency for all of us, but some individuals with disabilities with comorbid impairments are at increased risk of being infected. Legal issues that individuals with disabilities face as a result of COVID-19 ranges across a variety of societal domains, but does include accessibility problems to emergency notifications and educational services; and disability discrimination in the work place and discrimination within the crisis standards of care implemented in emergency medical services.

In the wake of COVID-19, the disability community might encounter an impossible choice: risk losing their job or risk contracting the virus. Even if a business is determined to be “non-essential,” employers may ask their staff to still come to work. If a company is determined to be “essential,” employees may have to work in close proximity to each other. Both scenarios could be deadly for someone with a higher risk of contracting the virus. Despite federal and state laws that protect individuals with disabilities, some employers are failing to accommodate for the health and well-being of their staff—resulting in workplace discrimination, failure to engage in the interactive process to accommodate, or firing because of:

  • having COVID-19 (or being thought to have it);
  • having a co-worker or family member who has COVID-19 (or being thought to have it);
  • having a condition that puts them at higher risk (or is thought to do so); and/or
  • having an exacerbation of a mental health condition because of the pandemic.

People with disabilities are also experiencing discrimination in accessing emergency medical services, as units of local government develop policies to dictate the allocation of medical resources that are in short supply. Many of these policies include rules about treatment rationing that determine who will and will not have access to life-saving treatment. Several disability groups have filed a federal complaint, arguing that these policies discriminate against people with disabilities and are in violation of federal and state disability rights laws.

Everyone deserves the right to accessible and quality education, yet school closures due to COVID-19 may create barriers for students with disabilities, who now have to contend with inaccessible virtual classrooms or at-home instruction and a lack of continuity in educational and related services. School closures have also resulted in states and local education agencies scrabbling to figure out how to maintain compliance with the Child Find and Free Appropriate Public Education requirements under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

During this unprecedented time, it’s essential to know what legal issues you and your loved ones could be facing and how you’re protected. If you’re experiencing any of these scenarios, please reach out to your local legal aid organization and the Protection and Advocacy Agency for your state.

To learn more about Stephanie’s project, click here.

 The Disaster Recovery Legal Corps has received philanthropic support from the American Red Cross, Bigglesworth Family Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Florida Bar Foundation, Houston Immigration Legal Services Collaborative, Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund administered by the Greater Houston Community Foundation, and the Texas Access to Justice Foundation.

Learn more about becoming an Equal Justice Works Fellow