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Stop Excluding Disabled People From COVID-19 Relief Plans

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On December 21, Congressional House and Senate leaders reached an agreement on an omnibus bill that included coronavirus relief and $600 stimulus checks. While Congress finally reached a deal, just like the first stimulus check, adult dependents aged 17 and older do not qualify.

Adult dependents typically mean two specific groups: college aged adults and disabled adults who depend on their relatives for support.

About one week later, the House passed a standalone bill to increase the $600 stimulus check to $2,000, which included adult dependents. The legislation did not reach the Senate when Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell blocked the vote. The Senate adjourned without securing the expansion.

This means support “intended” to give citizens relief for the financial impact of COVID-19 does not include the many disabled people who are most vulnerable and disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.

My mother, who provides nearly 100% of my support, will not receive any financial support for me for the second time in a row. This will impact access to healthcare, psychotherapy, medication and supplements. My care does not cost any less than a younger dependent. In fact, caring for an adult with complex healthcare needs may increase the cost, and the consequences could be life-threatening for some disabled people.

Even more, as COVID-19 cases and deaths rampage disproportionately throughout institutions such as nursing homes and psychiatric hospitals, families who scurry to take their loved one out of a higher-risk environment do not receive the stimulus check that may enable them to do so. Families with a loved one who already relocated to their home are not receiving the financial support for resources to survive, healthcare and out-of-state medical costs if they become ill.

In a society that centers human value and worth off productive potential and social status, the implication seems to be that dependent adults, specifically people with certain types of bodyminds, are not worth supporting.

Anyone accurately familiar with disability history will know the pattern of excluding disabled people from resources and rights is not new. It represents a historical pattern  in which disabled people are deemed lowest priority and shut out of resources needed to survive.

  • Only up to 6% of community homes nationwide are currently accessible to people with disabilities.
  • From 2008-2019, nearly 110,000 disabled Americans died while waiting for a Social Security disability hearing to receive the benefits they needed to survive.
  • Disabled people who receive Social Security Income cannot marry without the risk of losing their income or healthcare because of complex and oppressive rules.
  • Businesses can apply for permits to pay disabled people well below minimum wage, which is not uncommon, and sometimes down to pennies. For example, one Ohio woman who had promised to take her family out to dinner with her first paycheck only received 38 cents for the entire pay period.
  • Hospitals in numerous states have considered or enacted policies to ration medical care during COVID-19, which include statements that consider physically and mentally disabled people a lower priority and cite a “low quality of life.”

And these examples do not even touch upon the lack of disability accommodations, “Ugly Laws” that lasted throughout the 1970s, the Americans With Disabilities Act delay, disabled voter suppression, inaccessible education and transportation, high rates of abuse and police brutality, the intersections with racism, eugenics and forced sterilization that lasted well throughout the 1900s and continues today.

The needs of the people who are impacted the most are not at the forefront of the conversation, and they should be. This exclusion is more than a simple oversight and compounds a deeper pattern and regime of ableism.

As uncomfortable as it may be for some people to acknowledge these problems in the U.S., rationing care and excluding disabled people from coronavirus support also echoes modern day eugenics ideology. Eugenics rests on a set of beliefs and practices that centers on excluding certain types of bodies and minds deemed undesirable, unproductive and lower-value members of society. According to the American Association of People With Disabilities:

After months of delays and months of coordinated advocacy from the disability community, this week Congress passed another coronavirus relief bill which does not address critical needs of disabled people, our families, and our service providers. Our community is hurting. Our community is dying. More than 40% of the nation’s coronavirus deaths have been people with disabilities in congregate settings, and yet the recent COVID-19 bill provides no dedicated funding to support people with disabilities living in their homes and prevent further admissions to congregate settings.

They continue by stating, “Congress did authorize some small stimulus payments, but these payments exclude adult dependents, which means that families of people with disabilities and multi-generational families will not receive adequate equitable relief.”

Disabled people are often left out of conversations and the enactment of policies, or they are actively harmed from them. These problems clearly occurred long before the pandemic and have been magnified. Other than ongoing forced institutionalization in the U.S., disabled people typically live off insufficient benefits and endure education and workplace inaccessibility, which directly impact long-term income and health. For one, workplace accommodations (e.g., work from home) that disabled people have been advocating for were suddenly created for nondisabled people during the pandemic, many of which were retracted when restrictions lifted. 

Disabled people who receive Social Security Income cannot have more than $2,000 worth of countable resources at one time to receive benefits and have been forced to compromise long term sustainability, marriage, and any savings. The disability community and disability studies field refer to these policies as a form of “forced poverty.” These limits have not been updated for over 40 years, ignoring inflation and ensuring they are among the groups hardest hit.

If a few hundred dollars per month is not viewed as acceptable for non-disabled people who now can’t work during the pandemic, it certainly should not be acceptable for disabled people when they can’t work either, even before the pandemic. There are disabilities and created barriers that may not allow them to work in the first place, costs of accessibility devices, medications and more. Many of them will  therefore not receive unemployment either.

Taken together, on top of potential underlying conditions that place them at higher risk, these examples are further reasons disabled people are more vulnerable to poverty, homelessness, a mental health impact and COVID-19 complications during the pandemic.

And these are just a few examples. Complex loopholes exist in most policies and do not incorporate justice-based solutions. Certain policies and procedures operate in ways that maintain unequal systems for disabled people, and they cannot be separated.

We need to highlight these oppressive linkages and include the full umbrella of disabled people — physical, psychological, developmental, sensory, chronic illness, and otherwise — in policies, activist work and interdisciplinary teams. Moving forward, in addition to rethinking the very foundation and systems that created these problems in the first place, this may include rethinking the following:

  • Paid family and medical leave
  • Raised and eliminated asset limits
  • Community-based services
  • Affordable, accessible community housing
  • Access to both quality physical and mental health services
  • Support for direct-care workforces
  • Domestic violence initiatives
  • Defense Production Act
  • Health insurance

Photo courtesy of Getty Images

Originally published: January 4, 2021
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