COVID-19 poses unnecessary risk for people with disabilities

By Patrick Downes and Carol Steinberg

May 29, 2020 for CommonWealth Magazine

NEVER IN OUR lifetime have we witnessed a disease that has devastated lives across the globe the way COVID-19 has. No family, no individual has been left untouched. But, we can all agree that the brunt of this pandemic falls more heavily on some than others. Health care professionals, grocery store workers, delivery drivers, seniors in congregate care, and those with underlying health issues are very vulnerable. Also among the vulnerable is a group of individuals who too often go unseen – those with disabilities.

Many people with disabilities receive assistance from aides with personal care and activities of daily living. Those with strong supports and adaptive housing that allow them to isolate at home are better equipped to get through this crisis. We have all seen the tragic vulnerabilities of congregate care and group living for both residents and staff. However, there is a dearth of adaptable and accessible housing in our state, and too many people with disabilities are forced to live in nursing homes or shelters — the last place that any of us would want to be during this pandemic.

Understandably, our focus now is on the day to day management of this pandemic. We need to get through the immediate crisis, “flatten the curve,” and find treatments and vaccines for this disease. But, as we emerge and reflect on what we can do differently, there will be many issues we will need to tackle – racial disparities, health care accessibility, wage disparities, and a host of other critical policy matters.  As we sort through these issues and develop new policies and programs to better position us for the future, expanding the ability to live independently should be among our top priorities. We now know that this is a life or death issue. And, it is an issue we can address through modifications to current regulations to create housing adaptable for use by seniors and people with disabilities.

A survey conducted by the US Department of Housing in 2011 showed that the Northeast lagged behind all other areas of the country in accessible housing. The authors surmise that it’s because our buildings are so much older than those in other regions.

And yet, according to a report by the City of Boston’s Disability Task Force in July 2017, data from the American Community Survey showed that nearly 12 percent of Boston’s population have a disability and “accessible housing is one of the most important needs of people with disabilities.”

The ACCESSIBLE MA Act (H-4425) (Note: The current bills are H-2420, H-2419 and S-1629) would change existing law to ensure that any “gut” rehab of a pre-1991 building converted into more than 20 residential units would make 95 percent of its units adaptable in the event of disability, thus expanding housing options for all.

This July is the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA ensured that people with disabilities would have fuller lives. It prohibited discrimination against us. This pandemic has shown us that disparities still exist. But, hopefully, it will also unite us, educate us and compel us to make changes that will create fuller, healthier lives for many more of us.

Patrick Downes is an amputee as a result of the Boston Marathon bombing. Carol Steinberg is an attorney and disability rights activist.