People With Disabilities Are Being Left Behind in the Vaccination Push

  • Accessibility is a major issue for people with disabilities looking to get the COVID-19 vaccine.
  • A 2020 NPR analysis found that people with intellectual disabilities died of COVID-19 at higher rates.
  • A nonprofit in February detected accessibility issues in 81 of 94 US vaccine-registration websites.

In a recent US Census Bureau survey, about 82% of adults with disabilities said they’d received a COVID-19 vaccine, while about 85% of adults without said the same. Though a 3-point difference may not seem like much, it translates to millions of people not getting vaccinated, a huge problem when it comes to mitigating the spread of the coronavirus.

There are several reasons fewer disabled people — including people with physical, developmental, intellectual, psychiatric, and emotional disabilities — are vaccinated.

Some may not be able to get vaccinated because of medical reasons, such as allergies to the ingredients in the mRNA vaccines and the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Or they may face barriers such as a lack of accessible transportation (like wheelchair-inaccessible Ubers or buses) or inaccessible mass vaccine sites.

Vaccine outreach is not always accessible to people who are deaf or have hearing loss, who may need information in American Sign Language, or to people who are blind or have vision loss, who may need resources in large font or Braille.

And many vaccine registration websites are inaccessible to people with disabilities. WebAIM, a nonprofit that provides web-accessibility services, said in February that it had detected accessibility issues in all but 13 of 94 vaccine-registration websites in the US.

Experts say there’s a lack of trust

There may be a deeper reason people with disabilities aren’t getting vaccinated: widespread ableism in the medical profession.

“We saw that in a very explicit way early in the pandemic when rationing plans explicitly stated they’d ration care away from people with disabilities if there was a greater demand than supply of care, beds, ventilators, etc.,” Kara Ayers, an assistant professor at University of Cincinnati’s Department of Pediatrics and an associate director of the university’s Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities, told Insider.

“Most disabled people can tell you many stories of times that healthcare professionals made erroneous assumptions about them or just provided substandard care,” Ayers said. “So now we’re asking this community to trust the medical profession to take a new vaccine — and do it quickly!”

Some people with disabilities defer care for these reasons, Ayers said. “Many don’t schedule mammograms because they don’t think they will be accessible,” Ayers said. “I’ve also heard of people delaying care because no one will help them transfer to the exam table.”

People with intellectual disabilities died of COVID-19 at higher rates in 2020

An NPR analysis of data from two states in June 2020 found that people with intellectual disabilities and autism died at higher rates than the rest of the population. In Pennsylvania, they died at about twice the rate of other residents who contracted the virus. In New York, they died at 2.5 times the rate of others who contracted the virus.

And 60% of COVID-19 deaths in England in 2020 were people with disabilities, a mortality rate roughly twice the general population’s, according to data from the Office for National Statistics.

Though vaccinations alone can’t entirely fix these disparities, leveling the vaccination rates of disabled and nondisabled people could be a first step toward reducing mortality rates.

Ayers said that creating more diverse vaccination locations could help improve vaccination rates among people with disabilities. “For some, community pop-ups are a perfect way to navigate challenges like finding support and/or transportation,” Ayers said. “For others, vaccination in their primary-care doctor’s office is the only way they will feel comfortable.”

Leave a Comment