Elizabeth Schiltz: By this measure, Minnesota is not doing so well in deciding who gets a vaccine

14February 2021

The daily bombardment of numbers and statistics about Covid-19 – the hospitalizations, the deaths, the numbers of people who have received first or second doses of the vaccine – makes me feel like a Londoner during the Blitz. I just want to hide in the bomb shelter of my basement with my knitting and another episode of whatever Netflix has to offer.  I do understand the impulse behind the refuge we try to find in numbers: If we can measure any aspect of this baffling and devastating virus, maybe we can gain control of it.

But as I try to digest that daily flood of numbers, I keep hearing in my mind the saying that’s often misattributed to Gandhi: “A civilization is measured by how it treats its weakest members.”

By that measure, Minnesota is not doing so well. People with disabilities are experiencing dramatically more adverse consequences from the pandemic than other populations.

Some physical disabilities can be underlying medical risk factors, of course. But equally troubling is the research consistently showing that people with intellectual disabilities are significantly more likely to die from Covid-19 than others – some studies show up to 10 times more likely. The research supporting these findings has led the CDC to add one category of intellectual disability – Down Syndrome – to the list of underlying medical conditions increasing the risk for severe illness from the Covid virus. Some states, like Pennsylvania, Ohio and Texas, are following the lead of the CDC and including people with Down Syndrome or developmental disabilities generally, among those currently eligible for Covid vaccinations. An online petition urging Gov. Walz to follow the science and add Minnesotans with Down Syndrome to Phase 1b of the vaccination plan has gathered almost 10,000 signatures.

People with disabilities are suffering disproportionately from the effects of the pandemic in other ways, too. Online education has been a challenge for all school-aged children, but children with disabilities are really being left behind. It is proving almost impossible for schools to offer the personalized services and supports required to ensure the education of children with disabilities, no matter how dedicated and creative the special education teachers and aides might be. The Office for Civil Rights for the Department of Education has launched investigations in a number of states based on parents’ complaints that these failures violate the legal obligations of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Adults with disabilities are also suffering. Although laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act express our commitment to helping people with disabilities to live independent lives that are fully integrated into our communities, that is not the reality for many people with disabilities. Many of them rely on the support of caregivers of various types to achieve a level of independence, and many live in group homes or with families.

Strictly quarantining to keep yourself safe is not an option if you depend on the physical assistance of others to navigate life. Many adults with intellectual disabilities depend on the support of services offered in day programs where find the support they need to get jobs in the community, as well as social interactions and meaningful relationships. These programs have been closed because of the pandemic; some have been forced to shut down permanently because of the lack of funding. Just as in the schools, the dedication and creativity of staff at some of these programs has resulted in amazing on-line offerings.  But some people with disabilities can’t access online programs, and nothing online can replicate the lost jobs, or bring back the programs that are permanently shuttered.

States have flexibility in setting their priorities for vaccination. Other states have made it a high priority to vaccinate people with underlying health conditions that render them particularly vulnerable to the most severe consequences of Covid-19. Minnesota is going in another direction, prioritizing classroom teachers and all those 65 and over (even those in robustly good health). Minnesota has started vaccinating paid caregivers of people with disabilities as health care workers (again, even those in robustly good health). But, as the Minnesota Disability Law Center stated in a Feb. 9 letter to MDH Commissioner Jan Malcolm, “it is logically and ethically inconsistent to recognize the need to prioritize vaccinations to people serving vulnerable populations but not the need to vaccinate the vulnerable populations themselves … If minimizing harm is of paramount concern, then priority must be given to people who receive critical home health care and are at heightened risk precisely because they have no choice but to accept ongoing exposure from their receipt of that care.”

Minnesota’s vaccination priority list is a disturbingly concrete statement about who we really want to protect. It doesn’t appear to be the weakest among us.  Are we comfortable with that measure of our civilization?

Elizabeth Schiltz is the John D. Herrick Professor of Law at the University of St. Thomas School of Law, teaching Disability Law and directing a Special Education Clinic. She has written extensively in the area of disability rights, and serves on the board of directors of L’Arche USA, which is part of a worldwide network of communities of adults with and without intellectual disabilities sharing lives and friendship.


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