Pandemic Accommodations Proved We Can Vastly Expand Disability Access If We Try

The COVID pandemic was a historic, traumatic, and revelatory experience for all people, but particularly for those with disabilities. On one hand, the virus appears to have had a disproportionately deadly impact on disabled people, and the government’s relentless push to restore “normal” business activities — already oppressive for disabled people — is cruelly discriminatory for those with immunocompromising conditions.

Governments and businesses have responded to this pandemic by offering flexible schedules and remote meetings, which offer a glimpse at how society could accommodate the needs of students and workers with disabilities. And as millions of previously nondisabled people find themselves applying for Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) remote work accommodations or disability benefits due to “long COVID” symptoms, there is potential for building unprecedented levels of support for disability rights and justice.

Keith Rosenthal, editor Capitalism and Disability: Selected Writings of Marta RussellThe argument is that the pandemic has forced everyone to confront the accessibility and access questions that disabled people have struggled with in the past. In this interview, he talks about how the condition of disability is created less by people’s bodily limitations than capitalism’s cruel unwillingness to accommodate them — and why disability politics are relevant to anyone engaged in fighting for a more humane response to COVID and future public health crises.

Danny Katch: Government leaders in the country have been pushing to get employees back into offices and keep students in schools despite the fact that COVID cases have increased due to the highly contagious Omicron variant. What does this push to “return to normal” mean for immunocompromised people and others who remain especially vulnerable to serious illness and death from COVID even if they are vaccinated?

Keith RosenthalThe Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was widely criticized by disabled people for recently saying that she was “really encouraged” that most deaths from Omicron seem to have occurred in “people who were unwell to begin with.” This statement may be written off as an individual gaffe. It is not logical. disabled people have been documentingAnd criticizing throughout the pandemic — ever since CEOs, financiers and politicians first floated the idea that some people might have to dieTo get the economy back to a profitable place.

Regardless of whether it is stated openly or not the implicit reality behind what has been called “disaster capitalism”Or “COVID capitalism”The truth is that the pre-pandemic status, to which they seek a return, has left marginalized, vulnerable and superfluous populations being cruelly sacrificed.

It is worth reiterating that as of last June over a third of all COVID deaths occurred in the nation’s nursing homes — over 180,000 elderly and younger disabled individuals. What’s worse, snap legislation was passed in New York and many other states that granted immunity to nursing home executivesYou are exempt from all liability

Concerning the return to school, it is first simply not trueCOVID is not a serious illness that can be contracted by children. Second, the logic of COVID being not severe for most children overlooks the significant number that are severely disabled or immunocompromised and for whom COVID continues to be a serious threat. If these children are not offered a remote learning option, they will also soon be counted among the numbers sacrificed in the name of a return to the “normal.” Or they will have to remain home, in a regressive turn to the educational conditions that prevailed over 50 years ago in which disabled children were segregated from the rest of their nondisabled peers and excluded from the public school system.

You recently wroteOne of the effects of the pandemic was that society itself has become disabled. Could you elaborate?

COVID’s widespread nature merely reflected what many people with disabilities experience as a normal part of American capitalism. To put it in ADA terms, most people’s “major life activities” have been “substantially limited” by the pandemic — earning an income, taking care of family, eating, hygiene, leisure and recreation, etc.

A person’s ability to do many things has been significantly impaired in a physical or deficit-oriented way. Disability can also be referred to as a social phenomenon. It is caused by external conditions. We experience disability as a result not only of the biology of the virus but also of the prevailing policies and workplace policies, health and social care infrastructures, community network of solidarity, racism, gender inequality, class inequalities, poverty, homelessness, and others.

The United States is structured in such a way that it can be particularly crippling for those who are affected by such crises. This crisis and subsequent disablement were experienced by large swathes. Many of those affected wouldn’t consider themselves to be suffering from disability oppression. This is what disability is.

Mainstream definitions of disability start with people’s bodily differences and limitations, but many advocates argue that, as you say, disability is a condition imposed by society — especially capitalist society. Can you elaborate on this “social” understanding of disability and why it’s important for understanding the COVID pandemic?

The point is that such limitations on the life activities of people — whether they be permanently, temporarily or nondisabled — cannot merely be understood as individual functional deficits. They are the result policies, politics, socioeconomic relationships, existing infrastructures (or lack thereof), and many other factors. It is possible to say that the conditions in which disabled people live in our society reveals the underlying dangers and injustices that threaten us all.

The degree of marginalization and distress experienced by disabled people in this society in “normal” times exposes the extent to which the foundation of our society is itself incapable of ensuring a dignified, healthy and secure “pursuit of happiness” to the vast majority of us — if not all the time, then at least in times of crises — which are increasingly recurring.

COVID has faced society with the sudden need for accommodations to meet the new bodily needs employees, customers, and students. This moment could be a turning point in the disability movement.

One of the more interesting things to come out of the generalized character of the COVID crisis was the extent to which employers, school systems — our entire national economy and polity — have demonstrated the eminent possibility of rapidly implementing widespread accommodations in order to help people overcome certain threatened limitations upon their “major life activities.”

As disability became something that affected the majority of people, threatening the essential revenue, profits, and income of the dominant institutions of society we saw a huge turn towards certain accommodations that many disabled and non-disabled working-class people long demanded: flexible scheduling, sick pay and expansions of public assistance. Remote delivery of goods and services was also possible. This phenomenon was, of course, limited and partial. It is now being massively reduced. But it raises some important questions. Rachel Charlton-Daileyhas written a number of insightful piecesYou can find this.

With COVID, many people who weren’t previously disabled now find themselves trying to get ADA accommodations so that they can work at home, or long-term disability benefits for long COVID. What are the strengths and limitations of these two pillars of U.S. disability law — the Social Security Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act?

First of all, the fight to get “long COVID” included as a covered disability under federal statutes is important. Like many such historical fights — black lung for coal miners, PTSD and Agent Orange exposure for military veterans, autism for children seeking mandated special education supports — the struggle to just get recognition of certain things as qualifying disabilities has often been very political. The government should be forced to provide ongoing assistance, financial or otherwise, to all who are suffering from the effects of COVID. This should be done by taxing the extravagant wealth of tech titans and venture capitalists, who have seen their personal assets rise throughout the pandemic.

The ADA has been a disaster in the field of employment. In the three decades since its passage, around 80-90% of such cases have been won by employers. The problem in part is that the ADA calls for “reasonable accommodations” in the workplace, but only insofar as they do not pose an ambiguously phrased “undue burden” or “financial hardship” upon the employer.

It can be a tedious, bureaucratically complex and time-consuming process for Social Security Disability Insurance, (SSDI), or Supplemental Security Income, (SSI), which are two main sources of income for many disabled Americans in the U.S. According to an recent article by Maggie Mills, “Initial claims for SSDI are denied more than 70 percent of the time and claims are often denied multiple times, delaying or preventing treatment for the most medically needy…. Even after meeting the difficult requirements to qualify, the average SSDI payment for disabled people who have previously paid into the system is just $1,259 per month.”

Raising awareness and building mass social movements around the pathetic, miserly and bureaucratically oppressive federal disability system is something that should definitely be at the forefront of more people’s minds coming out of the experience of the COVID crisis.

The bottom line is that a legalistic approach is not the best way to win accommodations from ruling class institutions. Such accommodations are granted only when they take on a mass character in some sort of crisis or struggle that threatens the very profitability and continued power of said institutions — but as soon as the crisis begins to wane, or the balance of power tips back in the favor of the ruling class, these accommodations granted will be clawed back, undermined or whittled away.

This is why the struggle for disability justice, access, and accommodations must be linked with the basic struggles against capitalist dominance within and outside the workplace. Workers have always demanded accommodations from their bosses in the form of higher monetary compensation, more democracy in the workplace, or greater control over the work conditions, length, and nature. This is the history of the labor movement.

COVID is unlikely ever to be eradicated and more pandemics will likely arise in the future, so why is it so important for disabled people that they play a more prominent role on the left?

It’s important for disabled people to play more of a leading role on the left, and it is equally important for the left to play more of a leading role in the issues immediately relevant to disabled people. Both the existing socialist and disability movements can move in divergent directions.

There are those on the left who fear moving too far afield from more mainstream and popular issues that are centered on the active, “productive” working class — or even the “hard-working middle class,” as Bernie Sanders is occasionally wont to frame it. Focusing on the relatively marginalized and frequently scapegoated or ostracized is simply not a recipe for successful politics in this calculation — nor is questioning some of the core assumptions that undergird conceptions of “the deserving poor” and other shibboleths of mainstream American politics.

In disabled people’s organizations, there is often a strong compulsion to steer clear of “politics” — let alone Radical politics — and focus instead on securing government grants, connecting people with services, lobbying politicians with “neutral” evidence-based talking points, and simply navigating bureaucracies in order to access essential educational, health and economic resources. In other words, there is a sense — not uncommon throughout American society — that the best way to advance your interests is through figuring out how to work the existing system rather than engaging in mass, collective, social activism to change the system.

This is ultimately what we should talk about: changing an unsustainable system that fails to care about the well-being and health of many human beings. We must change fundamental aspects of how we live, work, interact, make decisions, and value each other. This is something that both disabled and non-disabled members of the working class and oppressed have a common interest in.