The CDC has finally acknowledged that people with intellectual and developmental disabilities have an elevated risk of severe disease from COVID-19. Accordingly, the White House has announced several measures to help people with disabilities navigate the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, following criticism that the government has ignored those with special needs during the crisis.
That neglect was encapsulated, advocates for those with disabilities charge, when Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky said on ABC’s Good Morning America in January that she was “encouraged” that deaths from COVID were mostly confined to those with comorbidities—a cohort heavily populated by people with disabilities.
“The overwhelming number of deaths, over 75 percent, occurred in people who had at least four comorbidities, so really these are people who were unwell to begin with, and yes, really encouraging news in the context of Omicron,” Walensky said on the program. “We’re really encouraged by these results.” After an uproar, Walensky apologized, but advocates said the government needs to do more.
In a list of measures the White House announced late last month, the government will provide easier access to testing and masks for those with disabilities, and will take steps to make in-person learning safe for students who are particularly vulnerable to COVID.
Specifically, the government will:
- Work with schools and parents to ensure that students with disabilities can receive safe access to “rigorous learning that all children deserve,” as well as clear information on Covid-19 and services through such mediums as Braille and simplified text.
- Coordinate with health, aging and disability networks to distribute N95 masks to people confined to their homes
- Expand the Disability Information and Access Line (DIAL)—1-888-677-1199—to help people with disabilities obtain free Covid-19 tests.
“The administration remains committed to implementing these policies and developing additional policies in close collaboration with the disability community — keeping equity and accessibility at the center of our COVID-19 response and beyond,” the White House said in a prepared statement about the initiative.
Advocates for those with disabilities met the announcement with measured approval.
“We’re excited to see accessibility becoming a priority,” Bethany Lilly, director of Income Policy at The Arc of the United States said, “although obviously would have preferred to see it be a priority this whole time.”