I hear all of this talk about how the COVID-19 vaccine might be administered to some people before the end of the year. Of course, that makes me hopeful and optimistic.
But this is always followed by a discussion of how we will decide who gets the vaccine first and who will decide it. And then my optimism quickly drains away.
But then I remember how, during this pandemic, being disabled has often had the opposite effect. Our lives have been viewed as inherently less valuable and thus disposable.
I hear a lot of talk about how the “most vulnerable” will be near the front of the line to get vaccinated. That should make me hopeful again, because I assume “most vulnerable” means those who would be less likely to survive a bout of COVID-19. I certainly fit that profile, at least on paper. I’m a few months shy of my sixty-fifth birthday, and I ride around in a motorized wheelchair. I rarely get sick, but I suppose one could say my respiratory capacity is limited to the point where COVID-19 would likely do me in.
So I should see this circumstance as my golden ticket to whiz my way through vaccine triage. But then I remember how, during this pandemic, being disabled has often had the opposite effect. Our lives have been viewed as inherently less valuable and thus disposable.
Early in the pandemic, many states issued protocols for determining which people hospitalized with COVID-19 would be the first and last to be put on ventilators. Several complaints were filed with the Office for Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services charging that these protocols in certain states put disabled people last on the list to be ventilated. Sometimes, they left us off the list altogether.
In response, the Department of Health and Human Services issued a bulletin stating that when anyone is “denied medical care on the basis of stereotypes, assessments of quality of life, or judgments about the person’s relative ‘worth’ based on the presence or absence of disabilities,” that violates federal disability civil rights laws, such as Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.
Nevertheless, Michael Hickson, a quadriplegic from Austin, Texas, got COVID-19 and died shortly after he was admitted to St. David’s South Austin Medical Center last June. His wife, Melissa, recorded and posted on YouTube a conversation she had with a physician at the facility regarding a treatment plan (or lack thereof) for Hickson. The physician tells her Hickson would not be put on a respirator because “as of right now, his quality of life—he doesn’t have much of one.”
Melissa says, “What do you mean? Because he’s paralyzed with a brain injury he doesn’t have quality of life?”
The physician replies, “Correct.”
After Michael died, Melissa posted another video in which she asserted that her husband was only given hospice comfort care until he died.
The National Council on Disability, an independent federal agency charged with advising the President, Congress, and federal agencies on disability issues, put out a statement denouncing “this denial of life-saving care” and asking the Department of Health and Human Services to investigate Hickson’s death.
An administrator at St. David’s said in a statement that Hickson died not because doctors thought his life wasn’t worth saving, but because he was too ill for doctors to save him. But the doctor in the recorded exchange with Melissa Hickson bluntly expressed the harshly dismissive attitude that many people in the medical profession and those who make public health policy often harbor regarding the quality of disabled people’s lives.
Those attitudes are what really make me feel vulnerable. They can be as lethal for disabled folks as COVID-19.