COVID and Disability
A DISCUSSION OFTime
In her article, “Time,” part of the postpandemic special section (Issues, Winter 2021), Elizabeth Freeman observes that the COVID-19 pandemic has drawn us all into the alternate temporality that the disability community names as “crip time.” Perhaps the most relevant framework is that of chronic illness whose very nomenclature encodes temporality, as in the Twitter hashtag coined by the activist Brianne Benness, #NEISvoid (No End In Sight Void), an apt motif for this pandemic year.
Yet some return, if not to normal, then to a world beyond the crisis stage of the pandemic will arrive. What will this new world look like? It will be profoundly shaped by disability alongside other social categories such as race, gender, and class. Disability is not a mere matter of medical defect or rehabilitative target, but a complex of cultural, economic, and biopsychosocial factors in which “disability” materializes at the point of interaction between individuals and environments. Thus, for example, a wheelchair user is perfectly able so long as the built environment includes ramps and elevators and the social environment is inclusive. This crucial truth, so often overlooked in narrowly medical understandings of disablement, must inform us moving forward.
We must at last reckon with the full range of disability’s social and cultural meanings. COVID-19 has been devastating to disabled people. In early 2021, the United Kingdom’s Office for National Statistics reported that 60% of its COVID-19 deaths thus far were of people with disabilities. Yet their disabled population has not been prioritized for vaccination, and disabled people were long excluded from vaccine priorities in the United States. Clearly forces are at work beyond the logics of science, as the weight of the cultural stigma of disability means that our lives are quite literally seen as less valuable.
Meanwhile, we are on the cusp of a vast explosion in the disabled population in the United States. “Long COVID,” as it is termed, is already producing a range of disabling chronic illnesses, causing such diverse disorders as cardiac damage, neurological dysfunction, chronic pain, and brain fog, often affecting previously healthy young people. As reported by JAMA Cardiology, a stunning 30% of Ohio State University football players who had mild or asymptomatic cases of COVID-19 were found to have significant heart damage afterward. And already people with long COVID in the United States are contending with the medical doubt and struggle for basic survival that typifies the chronically ill experience.
As after each of the nation’s major wars, a rapid expansion in the disabled population offers both challenge and opportunity to forward new technologies, reimagined infrastructure, and cultural recognition of the range of human abilities. Such innovations benefit disabled and nondisabled people alike. Will we allow our deeply inadequate disability support structures to totally collapse under the weight of long COVID? Or will we seize this opportunity to remake those structures to benefit disabled and nondisabled people alike? Disabled people must be at the table making these decisions about our lives, but it is crucial that all who seek a more equitable and sustainable society join us there.
Associate Professor of Disability Studies, English, and Gender and Women’s Studies
University of Wisconsin-Madison