More than 500,000 Minnesotans have some type of disability and the COVID-19 public health emergency has negatively impacted their rights and health. While some people with disabilities have significant health risk factors that make them particularly vulnerable to the novel coronavirus, many others face additional challenges
The Minnesota Disability Law Center, a division of Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid, with offices in Duluth, Mankato, Fertile and Minneapolis, is the state’s protection and advocacy system for Minnesotans with disabilities. We work to ensure Minnesotans with disabilities are free from discrimination and can live, work, learn, play and participate in our communities as independently and meaningfully as possible.
Because of our role, we are in a unique position to serve people with disabilities, understand their concerns, and warn about future problems.
Here’s a sample of the most pressing COVID-19 issues raised thus far and how MDLC has responded:
- Health care access and rationing: Even though it appears that Minnesotans are flattening the curve of COVID-19 contagion rates, there is a risk that people with disabilities may not be able to get emergency access to health care. That is due to a lack of transportation options or immediate help from family or friends to get to a medical provider. There are also issues with obtaining in-person mental health services (tele-practice may be insufficient), getting necessary medications, and obtaining preventative and habilitative services including occupational therapy, physical therapy and speech therapy. Further, if ventilators, oxygen and medications are running out, many people with disabilities fear they will not have equitable access solely because they have a disability.
- Staffing and equipment crises in congregate care facilities: We have received reports that group homes, nursing homes, residential care providers and other facilities aren’t able to maintain appropriate staffing levels because pay is too low, and risk is too high. Staff lack masks, shields, sufficient supplies of soap or sanitizer, or other forms of personal protective equipment. As a result, some facilities are limiting services to residents, not having or following disease prevention protocols, and/or preventing residents from returning from a job, a home visit or trip to a medical provider. If there’s not enough staff, some residents may need to go to the already overburdened hospital system to get basic, preventive care.
- Increasing isolation in secure facilities: Another tragic result of staffing inadequacies is that people with disabilities may be isolated from peers, families, service providers and others even when they are non-verbal, sick or nearing the end of their lives. Isolation is necessary to keep everyone safe and not transmit Covid-19. But unnecessary or over-restrictive limitations on freedom and access to services are worrisome. Balancing these competing principles is challenging, but a safe resolution informed by data and research can be reached.
- Representative payees: Social Security beneficiaries sometimes need or choose to have a representative payee help with managing finances and paying for necessary expenses. This is a critically important role that has generally been carried out well. Unfortunately some payees have taken advantage of their position by overcharging, neglecting requests, and engaging in downright fraud. With federal stimulus checks arriving, oversight and vigilance to ensure beneficiaries are protected becomes even more important.
- Inaccessible websites and unavailable technology: As the governor’s stay at home order has been extended to at least May 5, more people use technology to engage with employers, friends, families, governmental agencies, businesses and colleagues. But for some technology isn’t accessible to people with disabilities (especially those with visual impairments). For others, technology isn’t available due to income or because a cell phone is simply too small to fully access the Internet.
- Access to courts, public meetings and press conferences: Each of the government’s three branches has moved toward virtual hearings, meetings and television appearances. While decisions need to be made quickly to continue necessary public work, we also must safeguard the fundamental principle of universal access to public forums through American Sign Language interpreters, closed captioning and other forms of communication, notice and adequate participation.
- Distance learning for public school students with disabilities: Many students with disabilities will be able to fully benefit from the efforts of dedicated teachers and service providers to ensure learning can occur, albeit remotely. For many others, distance learning is ineffective, poorly suited to unique learning needs, and, in some situations, could compromise health and safety. Some students need in-person nursing services, support to prevent self-injurious behavior, and help with their occupational and physical therapy needs. Distance learning simply cannot fully substitute for the direct, personal care provided by a certified, licensed professional. Even when distance learning can provide a partial educational benefit, there will almost certainly be widespread educational regression. It will take an extraordinary effort by parents, schools and students to recover these losses.
- Employees with disabilities needing reasonable accommodations: Before the public health emergency, limited gains were seen in employment rates for workers with disabilities. Their employment helps the economy and contributes to a personal sense of meaningfulness and contribution to society. Even during the COVID-19 crisis, many workers can still contribute fully with reasonable accommodations from their employers while maintaining personal health and safety. But too often we learn that request for accommodations are denied or not sufficiently considered. Legal protections ensure careful deliberations and the balancing of competing considerations.
- Voting rights and 2020 Census: There are legislative proposals to move Minnesota toward a mail in election in August and in the pivotal November election. It is unclear how the state will ensure the ballots are accessible to people with different types of disabilities and how the ballots will get to people who live in congregate care facilities or those who have to move more frequently than others. Similarly, Minnesota has a long history of vastly undercounting Minnesotans with disabilities in the census. With COVID-19 continuing its path of devastation and isolating people with disabilities, we are very concerned about how historically hard-to-count people will participate in the census. Minnesota is at significant risk of losing a congressional seat and millions of public funds if our population is not adequately counted.
Our office has been proud to effectively tackle these issues through direct legal representation, answering questions, educating policy makers, issuing informational materials, making virtual visits to facilities serving people with disabilities, doing remote outreach to communities throughout the state and otherwise being a resource for the great state of Minnesota. We are working remotely and still open for business to continue our work. You can contact us at 612-334-5970 or 800-292-4150. We and our partners in other disability advocacy organizations stand ready to serve, but more is needed. We call on the state and its agencies, state and local public officials, all levels of government, social service agencies, and, most importantly, the public to watch out for and challenge discrimination, unnecessary isolation, and decisions that have a negative disproportionate effect on Minnesotans with disabilities.
Dan Stewart is Legal Director/Deputy Director of Mid- Minnesota Legal Aid/Minnesota Disability Law Center.