How The Pandemic is Harming People with Disabilities

Shannon Heroux, a deaf woman from California, recently went viral on TikTok after trying to bring attention to the struggles of the deaf and hard of hearing community during the pandemic.  In her videos, Shannon can be seen crying in her car after being denied service at Dunkin Donuts because she was unable to communicate with staff.

Shannon is deaf, has a cochlear implant, and relies mostly on lipreading for communication.  The Dunkin Donuts manager refused to pull down his mask to allow Shannon to read his lips, despite the plexiglass window between them and the fact that Shannon was still wearing her mask over her mouth and nose.  The manager did not allow Shannon to write down her order and eventually asked her to leave the establishment.  Shannon believes that the manager did not believe that she was actually deaf because her disability is invisible—her cochlear implant is not on the outside of her ear and, in her words, she speaks very well for a deaf person.

Shannon recorded these videos at her breaking point.  She was embarrassed and frustrated—and apparently this is not the first time that she has struggled throughout the pandemic because of masks leaving her unable to lipread.  Thankfully, in later videos Shannon informs us that she had a meeting with the owner of the Dunkin Donuts, and they discussed accommodations for the deaf community, such as sensitivity training for employees, clear face masks, and providing deaf customers with a laminated menu where they could circle their order.

But while this particular story has a happy ending, Shannon’s experience highlights a bigger issue—that people with disabilities have been largely left behind and forgotten during the pandemic.

I came across a blog written by two deaf UK doctors, Helen Grote and Fizz Izagaren, addressing the substantial negative impacts of mask-wearing on the deaf community from both a patient and healthcare worker perspective.  The inability to lipread and use facial expressions as cues is leading to difficulty in patient-doctor communication, obtaining informed consent, increased isolation (and the ensuing mental health issues), as well as inhibiting Dr. Grote and Dr. Izagaren from effectively communicating with other healthcare providers during an emergency.  “We, as a society and as a body of healthcare professionals, need to ensure that in our response to covid-19, the rights of those with hearing loss are not forgotten”, the doctors urge.

If two doctors—literally the heroes of the pandemic—are unable to receive acceptable accommodation for their disability, what hope is there for the rest of us?

Although the Government of Canada’s website mentions that “the loss of important services and supports provided through community programming, employment, access to therapies and school can also be detrimental to a persons’ overall health and well-being and lead to regression in positive development for some persons with disabilities”, as the mother of a five year old with a disability, I have yet to see any substantial action from the government to mitigate these negative impacts.

My son has been diagnosed with severe autism, a severe speech and language delay (he is effectively non-verbal), and a severe fine motor delay.  The socialization and therapy he receives at school is integral to his development, and yet he was at home for a significant portion of his last school year, whether due to government mandated school closures or required quarantining because of a COVID case in his class.

The school did absolutely everything they could to continue his education and therapy adequately, but as one Harvard Health Publishing contributor highlighted, children with disabilities  “may have more difficulty using technology, or learning and working in a virtual world.  For many, their social life is solely through schools, employment, or community programming.  So, the effect of limited social networks during the pandemic and extreme isolation is especially difficult.  […] Some people with disabilities, such as those on the autism spectrum or with intellectual disability, find it very difficult to adjust and adapt to changes required by the pandemic.  Many struggle with the need to find new routines in their daily lives.  Some children with disabilities regressed in their skills and behavior due to interruptions in programming and services.  Symptoms of depression, anxiety, aggression, and self-injury have also increased among some children and adolescents with disabilities.”

Like Shannon Heroux, my family has also struggled with mandated mask wearing.  My son cannot wear a mask or face shield, no matter how hard we have tried.  Despite having a medical exemption form from his doctor, I still regularly feel the judgment from others—including being harassed by security guards, retail employees, and even being refused service at a grocery store.  “Can’t you see that we are trying?” I often think to myself.  The rest of our family is always masked when we are in public (including my seven-year-old daughter), we stay home if we’re not feeling well, and all of the eligible people in our family are vaccinated.  If we can have compassion and understanding for those who are unable to be vaccinated due to medical conditions, where is the compassion for people with disabilities who are unable to wear a mask?

The negative experiences of people with disabilities throughout the pandemic is an extrapolation of the discrimination and exclusion that they have always faced.  What kind of society are we if the rights and dignity of our most vulnerable are forgotten or deliberately ignored during a crisis? Accommodations can always be made.  Solutions can be found.  People can seek to have empathy and understand before condemning.  Government’s can show us through their actions that people with disabilities deserve to be apart of society as much as anyone else.

While there are no easy answers during these uncertain times, I am positive that we can do better.