Disabled people can not be our sacrifice to COVID

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Medical staff members check a ventilator in protective suits at the care unit for the new COVID-19 infected patients inside the Koranyi National Institute of Pulmonology in Budapest. Disabled persons and those with pre-existing medical conditions will likely be in need of greater care while in the hospital with coronavirus.  File photo courtesy of Zoltan Balogh / MTI via AP Photo.

Medical staff members check a ventilator in protective suits at the care unit for the new COVID-19 infected patients inside the Koranyi National Institute of Pulmonology in Budapest. Disabled persons and those with pre-existing medical conditions will likely be in need of greater care while in the hospital with coronavirus. File photo courtesy of Zoltan Balogh / MTI via AP Photo.

We live in a world at war against itself. Coronavirus closed our schools and our movie theaters, leaving us all in a precarious balancing act, where our homes now have to double as schools, workplaces and places of worship. We’re trying to adjust to a new reality, a stark reminder that the world is a terrifying, dangerous place in ways that we often forget. But while the world is dangerous for everyone right now, the risk to disabled people is astronomical. Even worse, able-bodied and neurotypical members of our society are not only ignoring their plight, but they’re also making it worse. 

In every corner of the United States and the world, doctors and politicians are discussing how to decide what patients get their precious, limited resources. These are decisions that doctors probably never thought they’d have to make, especially here in one of the richest countries on the planet. But while the idea of making these decisions is awful, the best option cannot possibly be the mass murder of disabled people.

But that’s what is happening. In the UK, reports last week came out about doctors trying to get disabled patients to sign “do not resuscitate” (DNR) orders, or even forcing patients to sign them. A letter sent to a number of elderly and disabled people last week said the patients would “certainly not be offered a ventilator bed” in the case that they became unwell, and advocated they sign the DNR so “scarce ambulance resources can be targetted to the young and fit.”  

And this is not just a British problem. In Italy, there were numerous reports of disabled people being denied needed medical assistance. Here in the U.S., states are making incredibly discriminatory policies to decide who gets a ventilator. Until yesterday, Alabama still had policies in place that would make developmentally disabled people less likely to get ventilators. Alabama is not the only state that has these guidelines; NPR found that there were similar rationing guidelines in Tennessee, New York, Utah, Minnesota, Oregon and Colorado.

The argument from the side of these medical professionals is simple; they argue that they are simply giving resources to the people who have the most time left to live, with the highest quality of life as the most functional people. Disabled people also might have higher medical needs, which means they might need more care while in the hospital with coronavirus.  

But none of those make it even remotely acceptable to murder disabled people by denying them needed medical care. Doctors do not get to make decisions based on the quality of life that they, through a neurotypical and able-bodied lens, think a person has. This perpetuates the idea that people who are physically or developmentally disabled are inherently worth less than those who are not, which is an incredibly harmful ideology.  


A woman watches from a park bench as medical personnel prepare to open a 68 bed emergency field hospital, specially equipped with a respiratory unit in New York's Central Park, Tuesday, March 31, 2020. COVID-19 causes mild or moderate symptoms for most people, but for some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness or death.  Photo courtesy of Mary Altaffer / AP Photo.

A woman watches from a park bench as medical personnel prepare to open a 68 bed emergency field hospital, specially equipped with a respiratory unit in New York’s Central Park, Tuesday, March 31, 2020. COVID-19 causes mild or moderate symptoms for most people, but for some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness or death. Photo courtesy of Mary Altaffer / AP Photo.

Disabled writer Alice Wong wrote about this for Vox last week. Wong uses a non-invasive ventilator and wheelchair, which puts her at higher risk for severe complications due to coronavirus. In her article, she gives a critique of the idea that the lives of disabled people are worth inherently less than that of able-bodied, neurotypical people. 

“Even the notion of ‘quality of life’ as a measurable standard is based on assumptions that a ‘good’ healthy life is one without disability, pain and suffering,” Wong wrote. “I live with all three intimately and I feel more vital than ever at this point in time, because of my experiences and relationships. Vulnerable ‘high-risk’ people are some of the strongest, most interdependent and most resilient people around.”

I do believe that to be true. But even if it wasn’t, even if disabled people have nothing to teach us, even if they have no more to give the world than someone who isn’t disabled, disabled people still have a right to live. They still have a right to survive this pandemic, and the medical community still needs to give them every chance to survive this devastating pandemic.  

No one wants to have to make decisions on who gets vital, lifesaving technology and who doesn’t. But that decision can’t be made in a way that discriminates against anyone based on unchangeable characteristics of their life: Not race, not gender and not disability or lack thereof.  Disabled people are entitled to the same basic rights as everyone else, and that includes the right to not have doctors allow them to die because they think someone else has a better life.  

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by individual writers in the opinion section do not reflect the views and opinions of The Daily Campus or other staff members. Only articles labeled “Editorial” are the official opinions of The Daily Campus.

Thumbnail photo courtesy of Rodrigo Abd / AP Photo.

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Ashton Stansel is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at ashton.stansel@uconn.edu

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