What I’ve Learned as A Disabled Person from the COVID-19 Pandemic

What I’ve Learned as A Disabled Person from the COVID-19 Pandemic

Headshot of author, Andrew Pulrang. By Andrew Pulrang

A depiction of the COVID virus

The end of the COVID-19 pandemic seems a little bit closer now, and the final shape it will probably take is a little bit easier to see.What’s going to be much less clear for years to come is exactly what lessons we have learned, or should be learning from this whole experience.

One such lesson is that anti-mask people are actually harming people when they claim that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) allows them to go without masks into crowded public spaces. It’s one thing to have an abstract, principled argument about the balance between civil liberties and public health.

It’s another to dodge the debate and falsely, cynically invoke a disability rights law to justify actions that pose significant health risks, especially to people with disabilities and chronic illnesses. Going so far as to design and circulate signs and “ID cards” that incorrectly claim exemption under the ADA also undermines the integrity of laws like the ADA.

Granted, mask wearing and disability is not an entirely one-sided issue. But strident, unsubstantiated claims don’t help anyone, least of all people with real conditions that really do make wearing a mask difficult or impossible. Fortunately, these issues are well-charted in past ADA rulemaking, and clear guidance is readily available that takes everyone’s needs and priorities into account. Sound interpretations of the ADA include the following points:

An example of an unofficial mask exemption card with a large red X through it.
Mask exemption cards may look official but often incorrectly claim exemptions under the ADA.

• Some disabled people really can’t wear face masks, and nobody should try to force them.

• Simply declaring that you “can’t” wear a mask, or presenting a home-made card saying so, isn’t enough to let anyone off the hook.

• The health risk to others is imminent and serious enough to outweigh a person’s individual right to go without a mask in a crowded indoor space during a deadly pandemic, even if they have a disability that prevents them from wearing a mask.

• Instead, the ADA requires retailers and service providers to offer online ordering and delivery, curbside service, and other forms of individualized accommodation so someone who can’t wear a mask can still be served, without risking other people’s health.

• The ADA has never guaranteed a disabled person exactly the accommodations they want. It’s always a negotiation among viable alternatives. So providing service in a way the person may not entirely prefer can still be considered equal service under the ADA.

These are all things actual disabled people know quite well. It seems like it’s mainly people who are new to using disability rights laws that are confused about it and think the ADA lets any disabled person do as they please in all situations. Disabled people know better. We aren’t always happy to accept these limitations and secondary alternatives. But we usually make our peace with them because we understand that equal access doesn’t always mean exactly the same. And we go into situations calling for “reasonable accommodations” with a number of workable contingency plans in mind, because we know we don’t always get exactly what we ask for.

This all demonstrates that it really is damaging to cynically misuse disability rights laws. It reduces their credibility and long-term viability. It’s also interesting to note that at least some, (maybe a lot), of the people who are most apt to claim ADA protection for not wearing a mask, (and maybe for other purposes too), are philosophically among those who tend to complain that laws like the ADA are too much of a burden on business, or too much of a curb on freedom.

It’s a case of “the ADA for me, but not for thee.”

Andrew Pulrang is a contributing writer for Forbes.com and is a co-founder of the #CripTheVote Twitter campaign to increase discussion and participation by people with disabilities in voting, policy, and politics.

This excerpt of a longer article has been reprinted with permission. To read the entire article visit http://bit.ly/3tn4aEk


DRC-NH, in collaboration with the UNH Institute on Disability and the New Hampshire Council on Developmental Disabilities, distribute a quarterly RAP sheet to educate community members and policy makers about the latest research, policy, practice, and advocacy issues affecting individuals with disabilities and their families.

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