In a Pandemic, How Much Is a Life Worth?

Under the best of circumstances, users of complex rehab technology (CRT) live in an often inaccessible, uncomprehending world. Stairs and escalators abound, but elevators and curb cuts are hidden away or sporadically located. Blue-lined parking spaces are routinely used by customers who are “just running into the store for a minute” and then leave shopping carts in the blue-striped areas meant for ramp deployment.

People who use wheelchairs are infantilized, patted on the head and called inspirational just for using a wheelchair. Or they’re reduced to being examples for others’ aspirations: Dude, you’ve got problems, but at least you’re not in a wheelchair.

Every day, the world assumes that people with disabilities lead lives that are fundamentally less fulfilling, less successful, less happy and less worthwhile than their peers without disabilities. Every day, that’s an injustice born from ignorance.

But then COVID-19 came along. And now, those stereotypes about disability could cost lives.

In a March 27 article, author Minyvonne Burke of MSNBC noted that Alabama’s Emergency Operations Plan recommended against providing ventilator support for patients with certain medical conditions, including “severe mental retardation, advanced dementia or severe traumatic brain injury.” Such patients could be “poor candidates” to receive ventilator support, the Operations Plan said.

In a complaint filed in response, James Tucker of the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program said, “In this time of crisis, we cannot devalue the lives of others in our community based on their disabilities. It’s morally wrong, and it violates the law.”

In the same announcement, Gena Richardson, Executive Director of The Arc Alabama, added, ”It is cruel that our constituents in Alabama seeking medical treatment during this pandemic may not receive the care they need, or they may be left to suffer or die because they are seen as less than or other.”

The first step to making sure people with disabilities aren’t treated as less worth saving in a pandemic is to start shifting that perception before something like a pandemic is upon us.

Every time someone in a wheelchair is told that the front entrance of a restaurant or other business isn’t accessible, but that there’s a ramp out back by the Dumpsters, we contribute to the belief that people with disabilities are inherently less worthy. When that happens often enough, it becomes our society’s mindset. And in times of trouble, in times of stress, that mindset becomes the default. It translates to people in wheelchairs being thought of as less than worthy of ventilators and other best-practice medical interventions.

Disability rights have always been civil rights. But during this pandemic, we’re seeing what can happen when disability rights are treated as dispensable. We’re seeing that casual discrimination in “normal” times can grow into catastrophic beliefs during crises.

Indeed, it’s now possibly the difference between life and death.

About the Author

Laurie Watanabe is the editor of Mobility Management. She can be reached at

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