The Devaluing of Disabled Life by Society


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As we enter 2021 and several pharmaceutical manufacturers roll out the first COVID-19 vaccinations, government distribution plans have magnified how disabled people are being de-prioritized throughout this pandemic. 

In the U.K., high-risk adults under the age of 65 years are sixth on the list of priority groups to receive the vaccine, falling behind healthy adults aged 65 years and older, despite the fact that people with learning disabilities are more prone to underlying medical conditions such as diabetes. In the U.S., guidelines fail to even identify disabled people within the list of adults with underlying medical conditions, even though studies show that those with intellectual or developmental disabilities are three times more likely to die from COVID-19 due to factors such as living in group homes and difficulty maintaining social distancing. 

While it might seem “sensible” to allocate so-called ‘limited’ resources based on an ostensibly fair scale such as age, this approach reproduces dangerous ideas about disabled people.  It enacts a reality where disabled people are sacrificed for non-disabled people. Policies such as this affirm that losing a disabled person’s life to COVID-19 is less tragic than losing a non-disabled person’s. Policies such as this reproduce a hierarchy of life that is worthy of maintaining and preserving. If the goal is to reduce deaths, distribution plans must prioritize the specific groups that face a high mortality rate due to the virus. 

With vaccine distribution plans heavily relying on population data, these statistics are bound to marginalize because research on disabled people has always been very limited. In the U.S. for example, federal sources of data used to aid in public health decisions have no specific breakdown of data or definitions to set apart disabled people, even in the U.S. Census. In order to understand this major hole in data, we have to interrogate who these policies are designed to serve. If research institutions use non-disabled folks as the default person in a health crisis – because of the dangerous idea we outlined above, that they are deemed worthy of saving – any solution will inherently leave out disabled people. 

What we see here is that many of the policies and institutions non-disabled folks take for granted calculate the value of a life based on a ‘delicate balance’ of the monetary benefit one brings to society minus their living costs (food, medicine, etc.). This logic results in a dehumanizing rationale to forsake disabled people, because caring for them may take more resources that could otherwise be allocated to non-disabled people, and that cost may not be justified.

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