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

The COVID pandemic has been a traumatic and revelatory historic experience for everyone, but especially so for disabled communities. 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.

At the same time, governments and businesses have responded to the pandemic with flexible schedules and remote meetings that offer a glimpse into how readily society could provide accommodations to meet the needs of disabled workers and students. 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 of Capitalism and Disability: Selected Writings of Marta Russell, argues that the pandemic has forced all of society to suddenly confront the questions of accessibility and access that disabled people had previously struggled with on their own. 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 across the country have pushed to get employees back in offices and keep students in school buildings even as COVID cases have spiked because of 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 Rosenthal: The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been 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. But the logic behind it is something that disabled people have been documenting and criticizing throughout the pandemic — ever since CEOs, financiers and politicians first floated the idea that some people might have to die in order for the economy to get back to a profitable place.

Whether stated openly or not, the implicit reality of what has been called “disaster capitalism” or “COVID capitalism” is that marginalized, vulnerable and so-called superfluous populations are being callously sacrificed by those who ruled over the pre-pandemic status quo to which they seek a return.

It is worth recalling 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 executives from any liability.

As for the return to school, firstly, it is simply not true that children cannot get sick from COVID. Second, the logic that COVID is not severe for most children ignores the significant number of immunocompromised or disabled children for whom COVID does remain 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 wrote that one impact of the pandemic has been that society itself has become disabled. Can you elaborate on this point?

The widespread character of COVID merely generalized what many disabled people experience as a regular feature of life under 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.

In a physical or deficit-oriented sense, the ability of people to do all sorts of things has become substantially impaired. In another sense, however, disability is a social phenomenon, arising from conditions obtaining in the external world. We experience disablement as a function of not only the biology of the virus itself but also prevailing political and workplace policies, health care and social service infrastructures, community networks of solidarity, as well as racism, sexism, class inequality, poverty, homelessness, etc.

The United States is constituted in a way that makes it particularly disabling to those who become affected by such crises. With COVID, that crisis and consequent disablement was experienced by broad swathes of the population. Most of the people so affected would probably not think of themselves as experiencing a form of disability oppression. But that is in fact essentially what disablement 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 of policies, politics, socioeconomic relations, existing infrastructures (or the lack thereof), etc. We might say that the conditions of disabled people in our society reveal the underlying dangers, injustices and oppressions 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 confronted society with the sudden need to offer accommodations to the new bodily needs of employees, customers and students. Can this moment be a turning point for 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.”

When disability became something affecting the majority, thus threatening the essential revenue and profits of the dominant institutions of society, we saw a massive turn towards certain accommodations that many disabled (and nondisabled) working-class people have long been demanding: work from home, flexible scheduling, sick pay, expansions of public income assistance, remote and delivery provision of goods and services, etc. Obviously, this phenomenon was limited, partial and is already being massively scaled back. But it raises some important questions. Rachel Charlton-Dailey has written a number of insightful pieces on 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 absolutely be pushed into providing ongoing assistance, financial and otherwise, to all those dealing with the after-effects of COVID, and it should be funded by taxing the obscene wealth of those tech giants and venture capitalists who have seen their personal assets skyrocket throughout the pandemic.

The ADA in the realm of employment has actually been quite woeful. Over the three decades since it was passed, employers have prevailed in roughly 80-90 percent of such cases. 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.

In terms of Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI), which are two major sources of income availed by many disabled people in the U.S., it can actually be a quite onerous, bureaucratically byzantine and overly stringent headache. 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 overall lesson we should take is that a legalistic approach to winning accommodations from ruling-class institutions is extremely disadvantageous. 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 around disability justice, access and accommodations has to be connected with the basic struggles of working-class people against the domination of capitalist relations both within and without the workplace. The history of the labor movement has been a history of workers demanding accommodations from their bosses, either in the form of greater monetary compensation, greater democracy in the workplace, or greater flexibility and control over the conditions, length and nature of the work.

Given that COVID is unlikely to be eradicated anytime soon, and more pandemics are likely to arise in the coming years, why is it important for disabled people to play more of a leading 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. There can be a tendency in both the existing socialist and disability movements to move in somewhat 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.

But that is ultimately what we should be talking about: changing a system that simply is not designed to care about the lives of vast numbers of human beings. We need to change the fundamental nature of basic things like how we work, how we interact with each other, how we make decisions, what we value in each other. This is something that the majority of disabled and nondisabled working class and oppressed people have a shared interest in.