Manitoba·Point of View

Who gets medical care during the coronavirus pandemic — and what does that mean for people with disabilities?

With the appearance of COVID 19, as a person with a disability, my life has suddenly taken on more significance -- or should I say insignificance.  In my opinion, disabled people were identified as disposable. 

Rationing care could put disabled persons at risk; 'I'm nervous,' says Manitoban with a disability

Paramedics carry a hazardous medical waste box as patients lie on camping beds, in an emergency structure set up in northern Italy in a March 12 photo. If medical care is rationed during the coronavirus pandemic, asks University of Manitoba assistant professor Nancy Hansen, what will that mean for people with disabilities? (Luca Bruno/The Associated Press)

Am I worth it?

With the appearance of COVID-19, as a person with a disability, my life has suddenly taken on more significance — or should I say insignificance? 

Finding myself expendable is, to say the least, alarming. 

It has been slightly more than two weeks since a public health emergency was declared in Manitoba

Recently, I have read newspaper articles from the U.K., the United States and Canada, where government and public health officials have begun floating the idea that medical care should be rationed — and given only to those individuals determined, as I interpret it, to be "worth saving."

In my opinion, disabled people were identified as disposable. 

What are the implications when human beings are reduced to a single factor or narrow scale of usefulness — such as the elderly and the vulnerable?

The value of humanity is reduced, signaling devolution, and making the arbitrary distinctions between "us" and "them" becomes that much easier.

What does that mean exactly? 

This is the ugly, simplistic part of human nature. 

Fear and ignorance have never been good partners in policy development. 

Throughout history, in times of difficulty, certain groups identified as "different" (religious, racial, cultural and sexual minorities), have been randomly singled out as "less worthy."

Disability is no exception to this phenomenon. 

How quickly we move from a society that values diversity and inclusion to the point where difficult decisions will have to be made.- Nancy Hansen

During the Nazi period prior to World War II, for example, people with disabilities were among the first to be marked as unnecessary.

We are the world's largest minority, (1.3 billion people worldwide, and about 20 per cent of the working age population in Canada, according to the World Health Organization and Statistics Canada). 

Yet we are often readily dismissed and/or discounted. 

'"Equity, diversity and inclusion" is not a simple turn of phrase,' says Nancy Hansen. (Submitted by Nancy Hansen)

There are mixed messages being presented here. 

On a daily basis, we are told to use caution and limit social interaction in order to protect vulnerable and elderly people. 

Yet, at the same time, in my opinion, directives are being discussed concerning health care rationing to save those people considered more important. 

How quickly we move from a society that values diversity and inclusion to the point where difficult decisions will have to be made. 

However, those making the decisions are rarely members of the group most impacted by them. 

Outdated beliefs about disability

The general public has had very little real contact with disabled people. 

Much of what is known about disability does not come from people with disabilities themselves, but rather numerous outdated beliefs about disability and disabled people. 

Among these are that we are unproductive, have a poor quality of life (whatever that is), and perhaps most importantly, that we take up space that should be used by able-bodied people. 

Before COVID-19, when I was out and about on my crutches in the midst of daily life activity, strangers would stop and tell me that I was brave or inspirational, simply for being out on my own. 

It would seem that expectation for social participation of people with disabilities is quite low.

Where do people with disabilities belong? … These days, it is not all that clear.- Nancy Hansen

I am not convinced that medical professionals are immune to these perceptions, either. Medical school provides little — if any — training on disability or disability issues, from an independent living perspective.

The game has changed.

Services that were previously readily at hand are now determined to be excessive — and therefore under threat. I'm talking about friends here who use ventilators on a regular basis.

There is a certain level of irony here, as a friend recently reminded me. The world would be a much different place if it were not for disabled people. Think Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, Franklin D. Roosevelt or Stephen Hawking. 

Disabled people have played an important role in making life better for everyone. In times of rationing, it would not bode well for these people with disabilities. 

Where do people with disabilities belong? Where do we fit? 

These days, it is not all that clear. Often we have to make a case for being here. 

Education is key and goes a long way to deal with myths and misconceptions about disability and disabled people. 

We must look beyond outdated, arbitrary concepts of quality of life. Or we may have to ask ourselves, "Is history repeating itself? And if so, who is next?"

I am nervous.

This column is part of  CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.


Nancy Hansen is a professor and director of the University of Manitoba's interdisciplinary master's program in disability studies. She is the co-author of The Routledge History of Disability.