Wednesday, February 9, 2022

Pandemic Accommodations Proved We Can Vastly Expand Disability Access If We Try | TRUTHOUT Interview

Originally published at TRUTHOUT, 23 January 2022

Keith Rosenthal interviewed by Danny Katch

The COVID pandemic has been a traumatic and revelatory historic experience for everyone, but especially so for disabled communities. On one hand, the virus appears to have had a disproportionately deadly impact on disabled people, and the government’s relentless push to restore “normal” business activities — already oppressive for disabled people — is cruelly discriminatory for those with immunocompromising conditions.

At the same time, governments and businesses have responded to the pandemic with flexible schedules and remote meetings that offer a glimpse into how readily society could provide accommodations to meet the needs of disabled workers and students. And as millions of previously nondisabled people find themselves applying for Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) remote work accommodations or disability benefits due to “long COVID” symptoms, there is potential for building unprecedented levels of support for disability rights and justice.

Keith Rosenthal, editor of Capitalism and Disability: Selected Writings of Marta Russell, argues that the pandemic has forced all of society to suddenly confront the questions of accessibility and access that disabled people had previously struggled with on their own. In this interview, he talks about how the condition of disability is created less by people’s bodily limitations than capitalism’s cruel unwillingness to accommodate them — and why disability politics are relevant to anyone engaged in fighting for a more humane response to COVID and future public health crises.

Danny Katch: Government leaders across the country have pushed to get employees back in offices and keep students in school buildings even as COVID cases have spiked because of the highly contagious Omicron variant. What does this push to “return to normal” mean for immunocompromised people and others who remain especially vulnerable to serious illness and death from COVID even if they are vaccinated?

Keith Rosenthal: The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been widely criticized by disabled people for recently saying that she was “really encouraged” that most deaths from Omicron seem to have occurred in “people who were unwell to begin with.” This statement may be written off as an individual gaffe. But the logic behind it is something that disabled people have been documenting and criticizing throughout the pandemic — ever since CEOs, financiers and politicians first floated the idea that some people might have to die in order for the economy to get back to a profitable place.

Whether stated openly or not, the implicit reality of what has been called “disaster capitalism” or “COVID capitalism” is that marginalized, vulnerable and so-called superfluous populations are being callously sacrificed by those who ruled over the pre-pandemic status quo to which they seek a return.

It is worth recalling that as of last June, over a third of all COVID deaths occurred in the nation’s nursing homes — over 180,000 elderly and younger disabled individuals. What’s worse, snap legislation was passed in New York and many other states that granted immunity to nursing home executives from any liability.

As for the return to school, firstly, it is simply not true that children cannot get sick from COVID. Second, the logic that COVID is not severe for most children ignores the significant number of immunocompromised or disabled children for whom COVID does remain a serious threat. If these children are not offered a remote learning option, they will also soon be counted among the numbers sacrificed in the name of a return to the “normal.” Or they will have to remain home, in a regressive turn to the educational conditions that prevailed over 50 years ago in which disabled children were segregated from the rest of their nondisabled peers and excluded from the public school system.

You recently wrote that one impact of the pandemic has been that society itself has become disabled. Can you elaborate on this point?

The implicit reality of what has been called “disaster capitalism” or “COVID capitalism” is that marginalized, vulnerable and so-called superfluous populations are being callously sacrificed.

The widespread character of COVID merely generalized what many disabled people experience as a regular feature of life under American capitalism. To put it in ADA terms, most people’s “major life activities” have been “substantially limited” by the pandemic — earning an income, taking care of family, eating, hygiene, leisure and recreation, etc.

In a physical or deficit-oriented sense, the ability of people to do all sorts of things has become substantially impaired. In another sense, however, disability is a social phenomenon, arising from conditions obtaining in the external world. We experience disablement as a function of not only the biology of the virus itself but also prevailing political and workplace policies, health care and social service infrastructures, community networks of solidarity, as well as racism, sexism, class inequality, poverty, homelessness, etc.

The United States is constituted in a way that makes it particularly disabling to those who become affected by such crises. With COVID, that crisis and consequent disablement was experienced by broad swathes of the population. Most of the people so affected would probably not think of themselves as experiencing a form of disability oppression. But that is in fact essentially what disablement is.