American Sociological Association

ASA Footnotes

A publication of the American Sociological AssociationASA News & Events
May/June 2020

Disability as an Axis of Inequality: A Pandemic Illustration (Disability in Society)

Laura Mauldin, University of Connecticut
Brian Grossman, University of Illinois at Chicago
Alice Wong, Disability Visibility Project
Angel Miles, Access Living
Sharon Barnartt, retired
Jennifer Brooks, Syracuse University
Angela Frederick, University of Texas-El Paso
Ashley Volion, University of Illinois at Chicago

The unequal impacts of COVID-19 demonstrate an urgent need for sociological interrogations of disability as a social category and axis of inequality commensurate with race, class, and gender and intersecting with them. While disability can be a marker of health status, it is also a unique social category with particular politics structuring disabled people’s lives and reflecting interlocking systems of oppression. We provide examples of how the pandemic reveals disability is a societally mediated category of existence that is (de)valued in particular ways. We also highlight new forms of activism that warrant attention from social movements scholars. 

First, institutionalized populations are among those most at risk of contracting COVID-19, and disabled people are institutionalized far more frequently than non-disabled people. These institutions include centers for people with developmental or intellectual disabilities, assisted living facilities, nursing homes, psychiatric hospitals, shelters for unhoused people, and prisons. Institutionalization practices are a consequence of neoliberal approaches, which underfund and/or defund community living programs. Growing research and activism also focuses on the intersection of race and institutionalization: Disability justice groups like the Harriet Tubman Collective have focused on disabled Black men, who are overrepresented within the prison population. Disability activists, such as ADAPT, have worked for decades to liberate disabled people from institutions. Sociologists should examine how COVID-19, institutionalization, and incarceration bring consequences of inequality based on disability into stark relief.

Second, central to this pandemic are healthcare systems caring for COVID-19 patients, including disabled individuals. Ableism is embedded throughout medical care, structuring disabled people’s interactions with healthcare providers. Ideologies rendering disabled individuals less worthy of care shape official responses to the virus; multiple triage policies released to “guide” providers on rationing care explicitly state disability as criterion to deny treatment. Judgements about and measures of quality of life are never neutral or static, yet they are used to decide which groups are considered more “valuable” in the context of scarce resources. Disabled people exercise fierce self-advocacy to assert their humanity in healthcare systems, but practices implemented during this pandemic hamstring their ability to do so. Others face new challenges: Face masks prohibit lip reading, deafblind people face prohibitions against tactile interpreting, and protections for sign language interpreters may be insufficient because interpreters are freelance rather than hospital staff.

Third, the pandemic results in the radical transformation of work, school and family life, all coalescing in the home space as a result of shelter in place orders. Multiple issues arise related to job security, access, and crises of care. COVID-19 exacerbates existing labor market inequalities among disabled adults, typically segregated into low status, precarious work, and first to lose jobs in times of economic instability. More may apply for and receive long-term disability benefits, which come with income and asset limits, trapping people into poverty and joblessness. Virtual school and workspaces may create more opportunities for some, but inaccessibility is rampant. Popular platforms like WebEx and Microsoft Teams remain inaccessible to blind users and lectures are rarely captioned for deaf users. Disabled parents experience barriers, as public schools move to inaccessible platforms, illuminating the hidden labor of disabled people who must enact strategic problem-solving skills to manage an inaccessible world much of their lives. Reflecting hierarchies of knowledge production, the expertise disabled people have regarding the creation of accessible virtual spaces is largely ignored and unremunerated. School closures have interrupted students’ access to special education services; parents may not be able to provide any of the services mandated under their Individual Education Plan. Furthermore, families with a disabled member who lives in a group home or institution cannot visit them; if they are enrolled in day programs, these are closed, with no alternatives. 

In summary, based on their social position and taken-for-granted ideologies that they are disposable and less worthy, disabled people are at increased risk for exposure to the virus and decreased likelihood of adequate healthcare. Barriers also emerge as home becomes the new hub of school, work, and family life. In response, disability justice communities have been steadfastly organizing, both before and during the pandemic. For example, groups like the Disability Justice Culture Club in the San Francisco Bay Area and Crip Fund have been providing direct assistance and money to those facing serious needs. Disability rights organizations such as the American Association of People with Disabilities and the National Council of Independent Living have mobilized nationally to advocate for the passage of legislation that ensures that the needs of people with disabilities are included in every aspect of social and political response to the pandemic. The intersectional implications of the COVID-19 pandemic make evident now, more than ever, that any truly rigorous exploration of social inequality requires sociologists to more critically engage disability in their work. We hope this piece helps ignite transformation.