COVID Restrictions Lifted, but Challenges Persist for Disability Community

with Maria Town of the American Association of People with Disabilities

In the spring of 2022, the CDC lifted COVID-19 safety precautions such as mask mandates and social distancing for a majority of Americans, giving many a sense of normalcy following two years of COVID-19 restrictions. But what does this mean for populations who are more at risk, including people with disabilities?

Maria Town, President and CEO of the American Association of People with Disabilities, joins host Tetiana Anderson to discuss the effects of COVID-19 on people with disabilities, and efforts to lobby for stronger COVID-19 protections for people who are high-risk and living with a disability.

Posted on:

Sep 29, 2022

Hosted by: Tetiana Anderson
Produced by: National Newsmakers Team

Anderson: In the spring of 2022, the CDC released new guidelines that a majority of Americans could stop wearing masks and social distancing and enjoy indoor gatherings. That gave many a sense of normalcy after two years of COVID-19 restrictions. But for millions of Americans with disabilities who are more susceptible to getting the virus, the pandemic is far from over. Hello and welcome to "Comcast Newsmakers". I'm Tetiana Anderson. The effects of COVID-19 vary from person to person, but how has it impacted people with disabilities? Joining me to talk about all of this is Maria Town, president and CEO of the American Association of People with Disabilities. And Maria, thank you so much for being here.

Town: Thank you for having me.

Anderson: So, much of the general population has moved on from these COVID restrictions, but that's something that many people who are high risk and living with disabilities can't do. Give us the latest on their situation, what's going on in that population?

Town: Sure. And I want to take us back to March of 2020, when the pandemic started. The initial guidance from our news media, from our government, was we don't really have to worry because it's only the elderly and the high risk who will get this. Well, people with disabilities are those two groups. We are older adults. We are high risk. And from the outset of the pandemic, we have been made to feel disposable. And that continues today. We are still at higher risk of getting COVID. We are still at higher risk of dying from COVID. We still need masks, social distancing, and opportunities to participate remotely, but all of those are going away. And so, people with disabilities across the country are scared, and they're having to make these incredibly difficult choices of, "Do I leave my job because they require me to go back into the office? Do I continue to avoid necessary healthcare because I can't use telehealth anymore?" Awful questions that no one should be faced with.

Anderson: That leads us to this whole phenomenon of Long COVID and the connection to the increase in the number of people who are identifying as living with disabilities because of Long COVID. Explain that connection.

Town: Absolutely. The COVID-19 pandemic was and continues to be a mass disabling event. We have millions of people living with Long COVID who are experiencing functional impacts, chronic fatigue, brain fog, some neuromuscular impacts as well. All of these individuals, whether they actually claim disability or not, are disabled, and now, they will be confronted with navigating really hostile systems. We don't yet have a definition for what constitutes Long COVID. So, for example, if you got COVID and you are struggling with Long COVID, getting a diagnosis so that you could go to your employer to get reasonable accommodations that you need to continue in your work, it's so hard because it's really difficult to even get a diagnosis, and I think all of our systems are going to have to shift to accommodate this huge population of people. And unfortunately, because we don't know a lot about Long COVID, we're going to continue to need to adapt.

Anderson: So, some of your work really centers around trying to get the government to enact stronger protections when it comes to COVID for people who are high risk and living with disabilities. Tell us some of the things that you're doing to make that happen.

Town: One of the key things that we focused on throughout the course of the pandemic has been ending discriminatory crisis standards of care. Hospitals have instituted these policies that have allowed them to say, "If you are older or disabled, we can deny you lifesaving care if we are in a period of strained resources." At this point, those strained resources aren't ventilators or medications. It's staffing it's people, right, because of the great resignation, and so, many disabled people are so afraid to leave our homes to even get basic medical care because we don't want to be denied. We don't want to be disposed of in medical settings. And so, we have continued to push health and human services and state health and human services departments across the country to end this guidance. We've gotten a frequently asked questions document we're still pushing for guidance. One of the other things that we are really strongly recommending to the Departments of Labor and Justice are policies that would encourage people to continue masking at school, at work, or in community gatherings. Now, we're seeing students with disabilities being bullied at schools because they're wearing their masks.

Anderson: So you say that we're at this pivot point with COVID and disability. Explain that sentiment.

Town: What I would hope is that we have learned from this pandemic. We have seen the value of remote work. We have seen the value of telehealth. We need to keep these systems in place so that we can continue thriving. And the reality is, immunocompromised people have always existed. These opportunities, these systems not only benefit folks who are worried about contracting COVID, they benefit people with compromised immune systems, rheumatoid arthritis, folks who maybe don't want to go to work during cold and flu season because getting a cold can be a death sentence for them. So, what we would encourage is for these remote options to continue to remain in place, opportunities to dine outside, for example, to continue to remain in place so that we can all continue growing and becoming healthy and thriving.

Anderson: And Maria, if people want to know more about the work you do, what's your website? Where should they look?

Town: They should look at aapd.com.

Anderson: Maria Town with the American Association for People with Disabilities. Thank you so much for being here.

Town: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.

Anderson: And thanks to you as well for joining us. As always, for more great conversations with leaders in your own community and across the country, log on to comcastnewsmakers.com. I'm Tetiana Anderson.

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