How did COVID-19 impact people living with disabilities?

Nicole Turcheti, Assessment, Policy Development and Evaluation

The COVID-19 pandemic and efforts to slow its spread brought a number of social, economic and overall health impacts for communities throughout King County. Public Health – Seattle & King County, in partnership with the Disability Empowerment Center and Lifelong Aging And Disabilities Services, interviewed and listened to local people from disability communities to shed light on how these impacts were experienced by people living with disabilities in King County.

Two young women with masks speak in sign language
Two young women with masks speak in sign language

Disability is often a misunderstood term. It covers a spectrum, from being in a wheelchair to having chronic medical conditions, mental health, and sensory disabilities such as blindness, deafness, and autism. The types of disability are not mutually exclusive, and they can happen to anyone, at any age, and can sometimes occur overnight.

We interviewed 35 community members and held two listening sessions with the King County Disability Consortium, a group of service providers and members of the disability community. Some of the main takeaways are:

Mental health was the most common type of COVID-19 impact

Thirty-four of the 35 people living with disabilities interviewed for the study reported a mental health impact. Many participants talked about feeling socially isolated and experiencing worsening anxiety and depression during the pandemic. The isolation could be particularly acute for folks living with a disability that made it harder or not advisable for them to go out, such as people living with mobility restrictions or who are immunocompromised.

Technological solutions to reduce isolation were not viable options for everyone living with disabilities. Virtual platforms, which were a common option for many to connect with family and friends, were often impractical for people with brain injuries. For someone with a brain injury, screen time can increase cognitive fatigue and worsen symptoms such as nausea and dizziness. One person shared that because the health system was overwhelmed, they were not able to get an appointment to change the battery in their wheelchair, and as a result they could not leave their apartment for over two years. 

The majority of people living with disabilities who were interviewed experienced food insecurity

Of the 35 interviewees, 21 had a time when their food did not last and they did not have money to buy more. About half of people who reported being food insecure experienced this for the first time during the pandemic. People talked about the rising cost of food, and how the dollar amount of food benefits they received would not always last until the end of the month. At times, people had to resort to food banks and help from family and friends. 

Unaddressed inequities and insufficient support made the pandemic impacts worse

People living with disabilities experienced the impacts of COVID-19 in a unique way, not only because they live with a disability, but because of unaddressed inequities that existed before the pandemic as well as not having sufficient support. For instance, getting information about COVID-19 and the resources available to deal with effects of the pandemic was difficult for some people living with disabilities because communication pieces were not always produced in an accessible way (e.g., designed to be compatible and comprehensive when read with screen readers). Some folks also faced a harder time accessing care due to the increased risk of exposure to COVID-19 at healthcare facilities.

As one of the interviewers noted, “COVID-19 impacts people with disabilities significantly differently because they are already at high risk for contracting, getting sick from, and dying from COVID-19. We all have different forms of care that we need and seek from the medical system, and when the system is overburdened and at capacity, people with disabilities lose their essential support and critical care that they need to survive, to live, to thrive.”

People living with disabilities also had positive outcomes from the pandemic

Although participants mostly reported negative impacts from COVID-19 and the measures to slow its spread, they also identified some positive outcomes from the pandemic. Examples include having more financial support available; the increase in telework opportunities, which made it easier for some people that live with disabilities to be able to have a job; and the increased awareness of the importance of mental health that occurred during the pandemic.

There’s more to understand

This study helps address a gap in existing data on impacts of COVID-19 experienced by people living with disabilities. Most of the data currently available allows us to look at how the pandemic affected people by race and ethnicity, gender and age, for example, but does not have breakdowns by disability status. The lack of data makes it difficult to determine how to best serve the disability community. More systematic data collection is still needed to better understand the impacts and needs that people in the disability communities experience.

You can view the full report from the study here and the article published about this work in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

Other reports about COVID-19 are available at Public Health – Seattle & King County  COVID-19 resources website.

Originally published October 18, 2022