We asked disabled folks how ableism was impacting them during this pandemic. The answers? Painful.
Recently, I took to Twitter to ask fellow disabled folks to expose the ways that ableism has directly affected them during the COVID-19 outbreak.
We didn’t hold back.
Between ableist language, global gaslighting, and the beliefs that our lives don’t have worth, the experiences that these Twitter users shared with Healthline reveal all the ways disabled and chronically ill people are just trying to survive the pandemic.
This is one of the biggest misconceptions about what “high risk” looks like during the COVID-19 outbreak.
“High risk” is not an aesthetic.
There are many different populations who are most susceptible to the virus: infants, immunocompromised people, cancer survivors, patients recovering from surgery, and so on.
High-risk communities frequently struggle against this idea that they’re supposed to look a particular way to be taken seriously and protected. Some high-risk individuals have even expressed how often they’re seen as “fine.”
This is why taking proactive measures against the spread of COVID-19 is incredibly important in all settings.
You can’t assume that somebody isn’t high risk just by looking at them — and you can’t assume that somebody who isn’t in a high-risk population doesn’t have close family or friends who are.
My university announced the first order to switch to distance learning on Wednesday, March 11. Let’s rewind to the weekend before this:
Saturday and Sunday, dozens of my colleagues returned from the AWP conference in San Antonio by plane.
That Monday, the 9th, a professor in the department sent out an email to the graduate students, begging anybody who attended the AWP conference to stay home and stay off campus.
The same day, I had a professor keep the in-person class requirement. Three of my classmates (out of five) went to the conference in San Antonio.
Only one was choosing to stay home — after all, attendance policies for 3-hour graduate classes are daunting. We don’t have much wiggle room to stay home.
I had to miss the week before because of complications from my connective tissue disorder, so I didn’t want another absence on my record. My professor joked that we’d all just sit 6 feet apart.
So, I went to class. There was no room for all of us to sit 6 feet apart.
I decided the next day that I was going to move the class I was teaching online for the rest of the week at least. Putting myself at risk was one thing, but I refused to put my students in danger.
Tuesday, I went to the chiropractor to have my joints put back in place. She told me, “Can you believe Ohio State University closed down? We can’t just stop everything for a flu!”
Wednesday afternoon, we got the email from the university: temporary shutdown.
Soon after, the shutdown wasn’t temporary.
When the whispers about the novel coronavirus first started to spread to the United States, it was immunocompromised and disabled communities who started to worry first.
For us, every outing in a public place was already a health risk. Suddenly, there were reports of this deadly, highly transmittable virus that could pass from person to person. Our anxieties and fears started prickling like some sort of virus-detector superpower.
We knew it was going to be bad.
Take one journalist’s perspective, for example:
But like this tweet shows, the United States in particular was incredibly slow to start putting preventive measures in place.
Our community started voicing our fears — even if we were hoping they weren’t true — but our schools, news outlets, and the government smirked at us and with pointed fingers said, “You’re crying wolf.”
Then, even after the wolf appeared for all to see, our concerns about our own safety and the well-being of others were pushed aside as hypochondriac hysteria.
Medical gaslighting has always been an urgent issue for disabled people, and now it has become deadly.
Once stay-at-home orders for schools, universities, and many places of employment became more common, the world started scrambling to accommodate for remote opportunities.
Or maybe scrambling is a bit of a stretch.
Turns out, it didn’t take too much strain or effort to transfer to remote learning and working.
But disabled folks have been trying to get accommodations like these since we’ve had the technological ability to work and learn from home.
A lot of people expressed concern about this on Twitter.
Before the outbreak, companies and universities found it seemingly impossible to provide these opportunities to us. One student on Twitter shared:
This isn’t to say that switching suddenly to online learning was easy for instructors — it was a very challenging and stressful transition for many educators around the country.
But as soon as creating these opportunities became necessary for able students, teachers were required to make it work.
The problem with this is that having the option to do remote work is consistently necessary for disabled students and employees to thrive without sacrificing their health.
If teachers were always required to make these accommodations for students who needed them, for example, there wouldn’t have been such a frantic and disruptive shift to distance learning.
Additionally, universities would most likely provide a lot more training for online instructions if instructors always had to be ready to accommodate for situations where students could not fulfill the physical attendance requirement.
These accommodations are not unreasonable — if anything, they’re responsible for providing more equal opportunities to our communities.
Because instructors are so underprepared for online learning, many of the easy, go-to adaptions are inaccessible to disabled students.
Here’s what disabled people are saying about educational inaccessibility during COVID-19:
All of these examples show us that, though accommodations are possible and necessary, we’re still not even worth the effort. Our success isn’t a priority — it’s an inconvenience.
Some employers and educators are actually giving more work during the outbreak.
But so many of us are using all of our energy to survive this pandemic.
One Twitter user spoke on the ableist expectations during the COVID-19 outbreak, saying:
Not only are we expected to function as we normally would, but there’s even more unrealistic pressure to produce work, to meet deadlines, to push ourselves like bodyless, disability-less, machines.
“Just be positive! Don’t worry! Eat only healthy foods! Exercise daily! Get out and walk!”
This is a preventive measure to keep yourself and others safe.
But some disabled people can’t wear masks because of health concerns:
People who cannot wear masks are not “lucky” — they’re high risk. This means that it’s even more important for people who are able to wear protective gear to always take that precaution.
If you have the ability to wear a mask, you’re protecting those who don’t.
Our society is more concerned with finding ways to accommodate for able-bodied people during the COVID-19 outbreak than protecting disabled bodies.
These tweets speak for themselves:
Currently, there are protests around the United States to “open” the country. The economy is tanking, businesses are failing, and white moms’ gray roots are coming in.
But all this talk about lessening shutdown restrictions so that things can go back to “normal” is incredibly ableist.
One Twitter user shared the danger of ableist discourse:
Ableist discourse can take on many different forms. In this sense, ableist conversations center around how invaluable disabled people’s lives are.
This type of rhetoric is extremely harmful to disabled people, who have been battling the beliefs of eugenics for much too long.
In the conversation around reopening the country, there are people who are advocating for the country to operate as it did before the outbreak — all while understanding that there will be an influx of illness and a loss of human life.
There will be less hospital space. There will be shortages of medical supplies disabled individuals need to survive. And vulnerable individuals will be asked to bear the brunt of this burden by either staying home for everyone else, or exposing themselves to the virus.
The people who are advocating for the country to operate as it did before the outbreak understand that more people will die.
They just don’t care about these lost human lives because so many of the casualties will be disabled people.
What’s a disabled life worth?
A lot of the Twitter responses on ableism during the COVID-19 outbreak were about this.
And the ableist solution to keep disabled people safe? Being excluded from society.
We want the same things as any human wants: safety, good health, happiness. It’s our basic human right to have access to the same things as able-bodied people.
By excluding us from society and supporting the idea that we are expendable, ableist people are just remaining in the dark about their own mortality and their inevitable needs.
Keep this in mind:
Nobody is able-bodied forever.
Will you still believe that disabled people are worthless when you’re one?
Aryanna Falkner is a disabled writer from Buffalo, New York. She’s an MFA candidate in fiction at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, where she lives with her fiancé and their fluffy black cat. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Blanket Sea and Tule Review. Find her and pictures of her cat on Twitter.