The Hill: People with disabilities need equal access to medical care now more than everJuly 29, 2020
By Christopher Schuyler
July 24, 2020
In response to the threat of COVID-19, medical facilities across the country have enacted new policies to protect their patients and employees. These new policies have, however, largely ignored the needs of people with disabilities in the U.S. – a group that is particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. People who are deaf or hard of hearing can’t read the lips of their masked medical professionals; drive-through testing sites are inaccessible for many with mobility impairments; and designated caregivers for those with intellectual disabilities are barred from hospitals. The list goes on.
The coronavirus crisis has further exposed discrimination and disparities in access to adequate medical care for a community already among the hardest hit by COVID-19. As parts of the country face spikes in coronavirus cases, and others prepare for a possible second wave this fall, health systems must abide by non-discrimination laws to ensure a medical system that is accessible to all.
While living with a disability alone does not generally increase the risk of contracting COVID-19, adults with disabilities are three times more likely to have underlying conditions that increase the risk for COVID-19, including heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer. In New York, where there have been more deaths from COVID-19 than any other state, people with developmental disabilities are dying at a rate 2.5 times the rate of those without developmental disabilities who get the virus. And these statistics are even more devastating for Black people since 14 percent of working-age African Americans have a disability, compared with 11 percent of non-Hispanic white people.
Under the best of circumstances, people with disabilities all too often interact with health professionals who aren’t properly trained to communicate effectively with them. Now, new policies are further jeopardizing their care. A person who is deaf recently reported to New York Lawyers for the Public Interest the completely inadequate care she received during a recent hospital visit. While experiencing tremendous pain, she was denied various communication services that would have enabled her to understand her diagnosis and which medicines the doctors were prescribing. Even after repeated requests, this patient who was already struggling mightily, was denied access to an American Sign Language interpreter or Video Remote Interpreter services. The hospital staff even went so far as to take a pen and paper from her hands while she tried to scribble a question about her care. An emergency trip to the hospital is stressful for everyone, but this patient endured a nightmare that no one should have to bear.
Reports of similar situations have only become more widespread as “no visitor” policies at health facilities prevent interpreters, family members, and designated caregivers from providing in-person support. While some states and health care facilities are loosening their visitor restrictions, disability rights organizations continue to receive complaints from patients with disabilities, as many health facilities refuse to make exceptions to their strict policies. Others are even implementing new “no visitor” policies in response to spikes in cases.
Hospitals and other health facilities must put systems in place to provide accessible care for all. Not only is it the right thing to do, it’s required by federal, state, and local disability laws. Health facilities must offer spaces for patients to communicate with interpreters through video calls and provide face masks with clear mouth windows for effective lip reading. They must also offer braille documents, large print, read-aloud technology, and other services to reduce barriers to effective communication. Disability etiquette, which fundamentally centers on respectful communication, must be valued and practiced by health professionals and hospital staff – both during the pandemic and for the long-term.
Since the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was enacted in 1990, this country has made significant progress in protecting and promoting the rights of people with disabilities. On the eve of the ADA’s 30th anniversary, COVID-19 cannot be the reason we backslide. Equal access to medical care is a must.
Christopher Schuyler is senior staff attorney in the Disability Justice Program at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest.
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