Ableism and the pandemic: What have we learned?


We must work to build a society more accessible and fair to disabled people

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By Shannon Reed

On 11 March 2020, the World Health Organisation formally declared the Covid-19 outbreak a pandemic, prompting the World’s governments to form strategies often shaped by ableist assumptions and rhetoric. ‘Ableism’ refers to the discrimination of people with disabilities in favour of those who are ‘able-bodied’. During the pandemic, the rhetoric around ‘the vulnerable’ further isolated the disabled community, with one prevalent example being the portrayal of Covid-19 as an illness that only kills the elderly and the disabled. Whilst people with disabilities were three times as likely to die of Covid-19 than their able-bodied peers in 2020, this misconception prompted carelessness in the abled community and contributed to a disregard for the health of the wider populace.

Now in the early spring of 2023, ableism continues to permeate a society still recovering from the devastation of the pandemic, prompting us to ask: what have we learned about ableism?

Firstly, remote working is possible, but not always perceived as profitable. The mass introduction of remote working in 2020 ignited a pivotal change in workplace culture, expanding accessibility and supporting a more inclusive workforce. People with disabilities faced unprecedented employment opportunities, with employers providing more flexible working hours and expectations than the ‘normal’ nine-to- five. Considering that disabled employees are “legally protected” against discrimination under the UK Equality Act 2010, you may ask: why had employers not provided such accessibility before?

The answer may well lie in the systemic ableism permeating modern British society, or perhaps in the so-called “hustle culture” that frequently promotes productivity above the health and wellbeing of individual workers. One ableist misconception in the workplace is the perception that disabled people are “less productive” than their able-bodied peers, and the ignorance of able-bodied employers to the barriers they face in gaining reasonable adjustments or accessible work. Throughout the pandemic, employers provided accessible working adjustments, including remote and flexible working, to accommodate employees on a global scale. As a disabled student, I am frequently left feeling exhausted following my requests for ‘reasonable adjustments’, whether it be in full-time work or full-time education. The pandemic highlighted to me a double standard between the disabled community and our able-bodied peers in creating accessible working and learning environments.

The risk of illness and loss of life by Covid-19 may have disproportionately affected the disabled community during the pandemic, but it was arguably our portrayal as 'expendable' that was most fatal. People with disabilities account for 22 percent of the UK population, with 14.6 million people declaring a disability in 2020-2021 Government survey. During the pandemic, marginalised groups experienced more significant health vulnerabilities due to the ‘necropolitical’ ideology that underpinned the responses of the world’s governments and health organisations. The theory of ‘necropolitics’ describes how social and political power may be used to dictate which people can live and which can die. The abrupt nature of the pandemic may have contributed to our acceptance of the ‘necropolitical’ idea that some lives were more grievable than others, thus enabling the ‘sacrifice’ of the lives of the ‘most vulnerable’. In the UK, this was most prevalent in our public health system, which prioritised healthy, able-bodied people over the disabled. Hospitals were even encouraged to prioritise patients who had the best chance of recovery when rationing health supplies. This systemic belief of disabled people as expendable was exacerbated by the pandemic, with the government perpetuating this sentiment within their Covid-19 policies.

Arguably, the most notable example of this belief in the UK was the response to Covid-19 outbreaks in healthcare institutions such as care homes, which became Covid-19 ‘hot-spots’ during the pandemic. The incarceration of the disabled is often justified as the best means to centralise the provision of essential aid and care for these communities. Several studies have found a disproportionate number of excess deaths affected care homes in the UK during the pandemic. According to the latest figures, over 45,000 people have died of a Covid-19-related death in care homes in England and Wales since January 2020, accounting for over 16 percent of total care home deaths. Could reform of our social and public healthcare systems prevent future deaths?

An enquiry by the Welsh Government into the disabled experience of the pandemic has revealed how disabled people experienced medical discrimination, a decline in basic human rights, and limited access to social care. It is suggested that whilst unconscious bias and systemic ableism are undisputed adversaries to the welfare of disabled people, disabled representation in decision-making roles could greatly prevent such marginalisation. The marginalisation of disabled people echoed through various types of communication throughout the pandemic, with the government and individuals alike deeming their lives as expendable. Consequently, disabled people are dependent on the voices of their able-bodied peers to not only protect their value in society but their right to live. The injustices forced upon the disabled community before and during the pandemic may not have occurred if we respected, elevated and listened to the voices of one of the most vulnerable groups in society.