By Ashley Jacobson, Esq., MA, CRC
Disability Rights Attorney, Advocate, Activist
Originally published May 3, 2020
Reviewed and re-published (because, well, it’s still as relevant as ever) on February 23, 2021.
The coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, has sunk its teeth in our daily routines, shaking up our normal practices and forcing us to grapple with its consequences. In those discussions of the COVID-19’s impact, you’ve likely heard repeatedly that there are some people more at risk of contracting and experiencing severe symptoms of the virus. Of those at risk, people with disabilities have often been seen and discussed as “vulnerables” not worthy of preservation, not worthy of mourning, not worthy of access, and not worthy of input. As a physically-disabled disability advocate and attorney, I wanted to explain where that notion comes from, while further promoting that it’s not an accurate evaluation of the worthiness of the uniquely-abled (my invented joke phrase for people with disabilities, which more aptly describes our creative inventiveness and adaptability like super heroes, and is a nod to everyone pushing “differently abled” as a softer approach than just calling us what we want…disabled).
Though disability advocates have fought hard to receive equal treatment as citizens under several disability rights laws, the plight of those with disabilities is far from over. It’s cemented in a well-documented battle throughout the history of humankind, which created a world built to exclude. People with disabilities were isolated (google “Ugly Laws” when you’re looking for a real downer), killed, not trusted, malnourished, shamed, ridiculed, and not educated properly for centuries.
Most families have someone in their family tree who experienced this cruel level of stigma based on disability. I’ve recently learned about a link to this historical discrimination in my own family.
In the 1940s, after barely surviving starvation under Nazi occupation in the Netherlands, my grandmother, her 11 siblings and 2 parents made the trip to the United States. They suffered for years under the Nazi regime, and wanted to return to my great-grandmother’s home country–the US. It took over a year after the end of World War 2 for my great-grandparents to get passports for all of the children. They traveled to the U.S. as a family, but were torn apart when there was a problem with one of the children–Nilah, my grandmother’s sister–at Ellis Island.
Nilah had epilepsy and she was not allowed immediate acceptance into the States.
Many readers may know someone (or be someone) with Epilepsy. If you’re familiar, you’re probably thinking “Why would Epilepsy be a problem when entering the U.S.?” Well, today, it probably wouldn’t be. But after WWII, among the medical community there was a false notion that Epilepsy was contagious, or hereditary, or just plain not what the forefathers would want in this country. So, upon entering the U.S., my great-grandfather was allowed entrance with 11 of the children, including my grandmother, while my great-grandmother and Nilah were holed up in Ellis Island for months. They were tested emotionally and physically in isolation, while my great-grandfather looked for work and cared for 11 children with $400 to his name, while living at my great-great grandmother’s home.
Shocking to no one today, Nilah was not contagious, and after several months was allowed to move with her mother to meet the rest of the family in Philadelphia. But Nilah’s journey with disability wasn’t safe from danger.
Once settled in the U.S., Nilah was taken to a very well-known medical facility and my great-grandparents were told she should receive a lobotomy for her Epilepsy.
In my graduate studies in the disability rehabilitation counseling program at Michigan State University (HIGHLY RECOMMEND THIS PROGRAM), I watched in-depth videos and read about lobotomies. You may have heard of these procedures, which historically damaged the brain using an “ice-pick”-like device (a great story on these linked below).
Though Epilepsy can be a very serious condition, the notion that it would become less serious by damaging Nilah’s brain with a lobotomy seemed unfathomable to my great-grandparents. The day they turned down the lobotomy gave Nilah the chance to adapt in her own way to the world as a woman with a disability (though I wonder if she ever personally identified herself as part of the disability community or if it was just something she thought was unique to her). Nilah went on to have a loving life and family of her own.
But Nilah’s lobotomy recommendation by that doctor still doesn’t sit right with me. Instead of finding ways to healthily incorporate Nilah into the world, or importantly looking at alternatives first, doctors flippantly and far-too-quickly recommended an incredibly dangerous, serious procedure.
But Nilah’s story isn’t unique. People with disabilities have been put in compromising, dangerous situations forever. Into the 1970s, people with disabilities who were completely capable of inclusion in typical society were institutionalized–many in horrific environments resulting in abuse. Willowbrook became infamous for such abuses including lack of nutrition, individuals living in cages, living in feces and human waste, lack of appropriate medical care, overcrowding, under-staffing, and under-valuing people with disabilities including those with Down Syndrome, Epilepsy, Depression, Post-partum Depression, symptoms now-indicating potential Autism diagnoses, and various other conditions fluctuating from mild to severe.
Many of the individuals in institutions like Willowbrook were capable of living among those without disabilities, but were sent to the institutions after their parents were given discriminatory guidance by medical professionals who expected and understood too little. There was a lawsuit (linked below) which held that the individuals living in Willowbrook had their constitutional rights violated, and the major de-institutionalization movement began to emerge. This movement led to major disability institutions “transitioning” its occupants into the community.
But de-institutionalization while valid in theory, was ill-equipped in practicality. There were not sufficient community supports that provided safe housing, education, and jobs for individuals with disabilities who had been segregated from society for most of their lives. From that point onward, many people with disabilities were forced to live on the street. Many were put in situations that left them financially and physically vulnerable. The perceptions of those without disabilities towards people with disabilities was incredibly damaging. They saw people with disabilities as “dirty, homeless, beggars.”
Then, when wars added returned-soldiers with disabilities to the community, the number of homeless individuals with disabilities grew substantially. Sitting on the street, with caps in their hands, begging for money and work–the term “handicapped” was popularized though derogatory in origin.
This societal view towards people with disabilities hasn’t caught up with the actual movement and progress spearheaded by those in the disability community.
Through repeated stigma, discrimination, and seclusion people with disabilities communicated their abilities, their willingness to work, their dreams for a more accessible and inclusive future. Many have proven to be leaders in their communities, and yet, they are still viewed as “vulnerable” and “unworthy burdens” on our system.
This is why, when a pandemic hits, they are seen as less worthy of medical care. When a “normally healthy” person and a person with a disability both are in the running for the last remaining ventilator, the “healthier” one receives it. This is why people with disabilities were terrified of the orders coming from states indicating medical protocols deeming us less worthy of that same medical care. Less worthy, despite being just as influential (if not more influential) as other contributors to our communities. Less worthy, despite also being spouses, parents, and service-members.
In Michigan, Governor Whitmer participated in a disability teleconference this past week which I observed via Zoom (note, “observed”–because actual people with disabilities were not able to meaningfully participate in the discussion and instead agency leaders communicated what they believe the disability community needs during the coronavirus…but that’s to be discussed later). In this discussion, Whitmer indicated that an executive order had been signed indicating people with disabilities as worthy of the same medical access and care as those without disabilities (new post in the works on this). However, it became even more clear to me that the topics we discussed were necessary because stigmas and discrimination against those with disabilities have a long way to eradication.
People with disabilities are still seen as unworthy–still seen as acceptable deaths in a pandemic where many of these deaths could be avoided. Protesters of my state, Michigan, were vocal about this. It’s “only” the vulnerable individuals who will die, and they are likely to die anyway! Coming from one of those “vulnerables” who serves her community day in and day out, I hear you, and you are wrong. Most of us aren’t more likely to die earlier than you outside of a pandemic. We are more likely to manage health conditions, lack of access to healthcare, employment, and education. But more likely to die, more worthy of dying? For most–nope.
However, I recognized that stigma the instant it radiated out of your hateful mouths into your megaphones. It’s not new, its just more brazen. And I’m here to tell you that the disability community is not going away. In fact, we may even be more equipped to surviving the perils of this pandemic than you are. We’ve historically been forced to live for long periods in isolation, on less money for performing the same work as you, with more barriers in our way built by those who dismissed our existence–yet, we’ve remained.
We are not just worthy. We are just as worthy as you are.