Is Masking an Equity Issue?


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As countries around the world roll back Covid restrictions, we must consider what reality this creates for disabled/immunocompromised folks, in particular. While disabled folks have historically been ignored and pushed to the margins of society, the realities of the pandemic have even further exacerbated their diminished access to employment and health services. Last week, the U.S. removed all mask mandates on airplanes and public transportation, once again calling into question whose needs are prioritized–the lives of elderly and immunocompromised people or the comfort of non-disabled people? Disablism continues to be at the forefront of workplace diversity and equity training, so how do we ensure we are showing up in the right way?

While many places in East Asia have normalised surgical mask-wear and acknowledged that certain spheres should permanently change for the health and safety of all, in many countries in the Global North people seem desperate to make the outcomes of the pandemic a thing of the past. Who does this impact most deeply? Anyone who relies on public transportation for their livelihood, and cannot simply avoid public places, such as bars or music venues. Additionally “Black and Hispanic Americans, who have gotten sick and died at higher rates than their white peers throughout the pandemic, are more likely to use public transportation—and more likely to support mask mandates there.” As immunocompromised people, in particular, are forced to seek alternative modes of transportation, people may normalize their absence from these spaces and further invisibilize disabled people’s needs as a result. 

The invisibilization of disabled people from public spaces due to their inaccessibility has a long history. However, in Seoul, Korea wheelchair users are protesting against disablist infrastructure that only installs ramps manually when they’re needed, rather than always providing them. Last week they blocked Seoul Subway stations during rush hour, actively disrupting people’s commutes and forcing people to see the oppression they experience.

For disabled people in Argentina, lifting mask mandates will increase their exposure as they have to leave their homes to receive social services. A study found that a lack of access to digital platforms means disabled Argentinians must put themselves at risk for critical things like banking and claiming government benefits. For disabled refugees globally, the realities are even more stark, with 12 million people with disabilities displaced worldwide. Not only are they targeted for discrimination and neglect, but if they do reach relief services, they are often inaccessible and place them in further danger of getting sick from COVID-19. 

All of the neglect and violence that disabled people experience in the pandemic pushes disabled/immunocompromised people further into isolation, poverty, and even incarceration as they face unpayable fines and mental health crises. This is unfortunately not a new phenomenon, as folks with learning disabilities, for example, have been held/imprisoned in institutions for decades. A new court case from the U.K. reveals that 100 people were held for more than 20 years in ‘institutions’ that completely cut them off from their families and any sense of autonomy or dignity. Institutions pervasively hide away disabled people, rather than investing in resources that could easily meet their needs.

So what does all this mean for our companies? If governments are not regulating public spaces with the needs of disabled people in mind, we will have to make a targeted effort to understand how our disabled employees will be impacted. What in-person events might disabled employees no longer be able to attend for fear of being on public transportation where no one is masked? How can you carve out opportunities for them to participate remotely? What networking opportunities might they now miss out on? How can you normalize conversations around health and safety in the workplace so that the burden does not fall onto disabled employees to advocate for themselves? These are just a few questions to start with if we are to build more equitable workplaces with fully accessible opportunities. 

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