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How America's COVID-19 Response Is Exposing Systemic Ableism

If we needed a reminder about the lack of value that society places upon disabled lives, the 2020 coronavirus pandemic would certainly qualify. The Seattle Times and the Washington Post have both run articles about how doctors and hospitals are planning to make tough decisions about who will live and who will die; these triaging choices have brought Washington State into the crosshairs of lawsuits by disability rights organizations. Karin Willison, a senior editor at The Mighty, wrote about her fears that because of her cerebral palsy and wheelchair use, ableism, not the coronavirus, might kill her during a healthcare crisis. While Donald Trump’s Department of Health and Human Services clarified that healthcare rationing based upon age or disability is illegal, given its sordid past on disability rights, I lack confidence in any government directive.

It is disturbing that we are even in a position where the Trump administration needed to weigh in about triaging in a medical system entrusted with the care of disabled lives. No one brandishes a curriculum vitae upon intake, and someone with a purse full of pills could be an award-winning photographer. That few bat an eye when health history is one of the main criteria for denying care in hospitals across the country is even more evidence of ableism in our healthcare system. If our ability to survive the treatment in question is not in doubt, then there is no reason the procedure should not be performed in favor of someone deemed more healthy. Denying such care is tantamount to proclaiming that disabled and medically complex lives matter less than the lives of so-called healthy people.

That the American medical system may be killing off a generation of talented musicians, writers, and yes, even doctors, because we are disabled or have complicated health histories, is a horrific precedent to be setting, especially since disability reveals little about a given individual’s contributions to society. Furthermore, even if one is too disabled to work, to assume that economic impact comprises the totality of one’s value is based upon a flawed, capitalistic notion where human lives exist solely to bring economic value to the marketplace. Too many people both within and without the medical system judge our worth based upon whether or not we conform to conventional standards of utility. For that reason, countless numbers of disabled people avoid the medical system because it’s a locus of marginalization for our community.

Whether society likes to admit it or not, the United States’ healthcare system is frequently nothing if not callous to disabled and chronically ill people. Speaking on a personal level, I have not gotten the care I need because doctors will routinely deny the reality of my symptoms due to my mental illness. If they cannot figure out the etiology of my issue, I am routinely dismissed and even blamed in a fashion that my neurotypical peers are not. In addition, medical staff commit ableist microaggressions, including the time where I was told sarcastically that I was “living the dream” because I was not working or in school at that instant. On another occasion, when I lamented my early arrival at a doctor’s office due to my paratransit schedule, I was told, “beggars can’t be choosers.” As a result of not being able to drive due to a medical condition, I was compared to a beggar by someone who was supposed to care for, not castigate me.

While such treatment may not seem as severe as losing one’s life to COVID-19 rationing, if disabled people avoid seeing a doctor because we lack the confidence in our medical system, we could die due to not getting necessary care. Furthermore, since we already know the American healthcare system is a site of ableist discrimination, how many of us will wait until we are in dire need to be evaluated for the coronavirus in the first place?

The fruits of such discrimination prove deleterious to public health, especially when dealing with a disease as contagious as the novel coronavirus. The lamentable reality is that the only way healthcare rationing may be prevented during a pandemic is through remedy by the Department of Justice. By that point, lives may have already been lost due to disability discrimination before we see the extirpation of ableism from our healthcare system.

For more on the coronavirus, check out the following stories from our community:

Getty image by Adam Calaitzis.