COVID-19 exposes hypocrisy over lack of disability accommodations

People with disabilities have long been asking for -- and denied -- accommodations that quickly rolled out to the masses once lockdown began.

Abrar Al-Heeti Technology Reporter
Abrar Al-Heeti is a technology reporter for CNET, with an interest in phones, streaming, internet trends, entertainment, pop culture and digital accessibility. She's also worked for CNET's video, culture and news teams. She graduated with bachelor's and master's degrees in journalism from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Though Illinois is home, she now loves San Francisco -- steep inclines and all.
Expertise Abrar has spent her career at CNET analyzing tech trends while also writing news, reviews and commentaries across mobile, streaming and online culture. Credentials
  • Named a Tech Media Trailblazer by the Consumer Technology Association in 2019, a winner of SPJ NorCal's Excellence in Journalism Awards in 2022 and has three times been a finalist in the LA Press Club's National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards.
Abrar Al-Heeti
6 min read

People with disabilities face many added challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

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Earlier this year, Kate McWilliams was looking into disability studies programs across Canada, but none offered a fully online curriculum. She reached out, asking to participate virtually because she has a physical disability that makes leaving the house difficult. 

"It was a resounding 'no' from every program," McWilliams said.

About a month later, the effects of the coronavirus pandemic hit with full force. Businesses around the world closed. Telecommuting became the norm across many industries. Countless events were canceled. Schools and universities, including the same programs that had denied McWilliams' request, went fully online.

Watch this: Tech accessibility is lagging. Here's why that needs to change

"When the able-bodied population needed these accommodations, it happened right away," she says. "You wonder, 'Why is it so easy to do for the able-bodied population, but not for disabled people, who have been asking for decades?'"

McWilliams -- a disability rights advocate who has complex regional pain syndrome, a chronic condition characterized by prolonged severe pain that can be constant -- is one of many people within the disability community feeling frustrated about the ongoing lack of accommodations. Many of their requests, including livestreaming of conferences, remote work and telemedicine, have been deemed too complex, but in the age of COVID-19 are now available to the masses. 

The COVID-19 pandemic highlights both what accommodations are already possible and how far society is from fully supporting the needs of people with disabilities, who make up around 15% of the global population. As society grapples with how to carry on with everyday life during the outbreak, people with disabilities are often left behind.

Everyday tasks like buying groceries are particularly challenging for people who can't leave the house or need assistance at the store. Much of the data on the spread of COVID-19 isn't accessible to people who are blind. Home care is difficult to arrange in the age of physical distancing and lockdown orders. Access to proper medical care for all patients, regardless of disability, is an ongoing battle, and the digital divide continues to take a toll on many in the community.  

Although tech companies have rolled out more accessibility features in their products, there's still plenty of work to be done. Today's Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD) aims to shed light on these issues and to promote digital accessibility and inclusion. 

Added challenges

COVID-19 and efforts to curb the disease's spread have created new challenges for people with disabilities. Grocery and food delivery services, on which many disabled people rely, are experiencing a spike in demand, making them more difficult to access and leading to major delays in delivery. Home care has also become complicated because it can be dangerous to a person's health to have a caretaker coming in and out of the house.

Yet another hurdle is that much of the data on COVID-19, such as graphs and PDFs, aren't accessible to people with certain disabilities. To help tackle the issue, Tyler Littlefield, a software developer who is blind, created an accessible COVID-19 statistics tracker that presents data in properly formatted text that's compatible with a screen reader.

"At a time when there's a lot of disparity anyway for people with disabilities, this helps deal with some of that anxiety of not having access to the numbers and not knowing what's going on in your state," Littlefield said.

One of the biggest disability rights concerns amid the COVID-19 pandemic is that many states have introduced health care rationing guidelines, which prioritize access to treatment and ventilators for patients without disabilities or preexisting conditions. That has many people within the community concerned about access to medical care and not being seen as "worthy" of life-sustaining treatment. 

The digital divide has also been amplified as more people rely on online communication. While platforms like Zoom and Google Hangouts have incorporated accessibility features such as closed captioning and transcriptions, a lack of access to high-speed internet for many people with disabilities, particularly those in low-income communities and communities of color, continues to be a roadblock. 

"Internet latency is particularly a problem for many people with disabilities, whether they're deaf or have sensory disabilities," said Anne Cohen, a disability and health policy consultant. "That delay and lag makes it disruptive to participate in those online tools."

That's if they even get a chance. Americans with disabilities are around three times as likely to never go online, according to the Pew Research Center. Disabled adults are also around 20% less likely to have home broadband and own a computer, smartphone or tablet.

As schools remain closed, the lack of access to in-person teaching is a major setback for many. While it can be beneficial for some people with disabilities to learn online from home, it can be challenging for others, especially if platforms aren't compatible with voice recognition or screen reading software.

"As good as technology is, it doesn't replace having an actual teacher or a special ed instructor, or working one on one or in a smaller group with kids," said Jennison Asuncion, GAAD co-founder and head of accessibility engineering evangelism at LinkedIn.

That social interaction can be critical for many kids, says Jill Asher, executive director of the Magical Bridge Foundation, which builds inclusive playgrounds for people of all ages and abilities. Students who aren't independent learners are at risk of falling further behind.

Implementing lasting change

While major tech companies like Apple Microsoft  and Google have stepped up their efforts to make products and services accessible to people with disabilities, there's always more work to be done. Many disability rights advocates emphasize that companies need to bake in accessibility from the start, and that it should be an essential part of computer science and engineering education.  

Resources such as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines can help companies effectively incorporate accessibility into their platforms and products. But one of the most important measures they can take is ensuring people with disabilities are involved throughout the product development lifecycle, starting from the user research phase, Asuncion says. He recommends reaching out to community organizations that support people with different disabilities and asking if they can help find end users to test products.

Eve Andersson, director of accessibility at Google , says including members of the community can help keep companies from viewing accessibility as a set of items on a checklist. The company rolled out several accessibility updates to Maps , Live Transcribe and Sound Amplifier on Thursday, as well as a new app called Action Blocks geared toward people with cognitive disabilities that lets them create customizable home screen buttons for everyday tasks.

"It's not just about making things work, it's about making … people enjoy using them and feel like they can be productive contributors to the workplace or to other activities," Andersson said. "The only way to know if you've achieved that is to involve real people with disabilities through all stages of product development."

Andersson says the COVID-19 pandemic serves as a learning opportunity for how companies can effectively accommodate different needs, even after things go back to normal. She hopes managers and decision makers will continue to allow greater work-from-home flexibility, given it's been beneficial for so many people.

McWilliams is also hopeful this experience could change how society views disability and chronic illness. Current accommodations set a precedent for what's possible in the future, she says. If companies and schools resort to saying that going online is too difficult, examples from today prove otherwise. 

"People now are experiencing what it's like to have to stay home for something that's beyond their control, so they want equal access to be able to participate in society," McWilliams says. "I'm hoping that after this collective thing we're all going through, people might see that there's no negative to accessibility." 

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.