The International Day of Persons with Disabilities: a moment to reflect about the impact of COVID-19 on “another” minority group

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On 3 December 2020, the United Nations sponsors the International Day of Persons with Disabilities. The theme this year is no surprise: “Building back better: towards an inclusive, accessible and sustainable post COVID-19 world by, for and with persons with disabilities”.

An unequal distribution of pain

COVID-19 has taken a toll on us all, but the pain has not be distributed equally. The most familiar narrative in the media has focused on the relationship between race and ethnicity and infection rates. The International Day of Persons with Disabilities is a fitting moment to reflect on the impact of COVID-19 on another minority group that has attracted far less media attention.

The UN estimates that over 1 billion people in the world have a disability, 80 per cent of which live in developing countries. Data on how COVID-19 is affecting the lives of individuals with disabilities is patchy; an individual’s experience varies depending on the nature of his or her disability and the ability to access resources.

It would be folly to attempt to survey all of the ways in which the pandemic has changed the lives of individuals with disabilities in this brief blog post. Instead, I will share a few personal anecdotes that I hope will provide a glimpse into some of the unique challenges that have arisen during these exceptional times – circumstances about which most able-bodied people are unaware.

Common COVID-19 mitigation measures present new challenges

This semester, I have been teaching law at Gallaudet University, which is the only university in the world in which all programs and services are specifically designed to accommodate deaf and hard of hearing students. All of my classes take place in American Sign Language over Zoom.

Many of us complain about “Zoom fatigue”. I too am guilty of grumbling about this one. But take a moment to think about how most of us use Zoom.  The visual information that we get from Zoom is great, but it’s rarely essential.  It’s nice to see someone’s face on the screen. It can be helpful to have visual content to follow a PowerPoint presentation.  But it’s the audio portion on which most of us rely.

The experience for a deaf user is dramatically different. The audio part of Zoom is useless; the participant depends completely on visual information. When the video picture freezes or becomes choppy for a hearing audience, it’s a mild irritant. In the sign language environment, it ends communication completely. I have lost count of how many times I have had to repeat myself because my students had been staring at a frozen picture of me for the past 20 seconds.

As the number of participants using their video cameras increases, the presenter’s rectangle (i.e. the main source of information) gets smaller and smaller.  Many of my hearing colleagues encourage their students to turn on their video cameras to simulate a sense of togetherness in a virtual classroom. I do the opposite. I encourage my students to turn their video cameras off, so that they can see a larger image of the person who is signing.  It’s no wonder that many deaf Zoom users complain of painful headaches after a day of squinting at their screens.

Masks are a major barrier to communication for deaf and hard of hearing people

 Another common complaint amongst able-bodied people is facemasks. Most of us don’t like to wear them. I certainly don’t. But my gripe about them is mainly limited to their irritating tendency to fog up my glasses. For a deaf friend of mine, facemasks are a problem on an entirely different scale: they are a massive barrier to communication. Even under the best of circumstances lip-reading is a difficult task. When people wear facemasks in public, lip-reading becomes impossible.

Before COVID-19 struck, she did her best to muddle through social events and friendly chats with her hearing neighbours. But nine months into the pandemic, she has effectively given up on communication with people who do not use sign language. Communication with most hearing people is simply too frustrating.

COVID-19 has affected all our lives in many ways. To be frank, for the vast majority of us, those changes have been for the worse. But on days such as the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, let us take a moment to recognise that adapting to life during the COVID-19 pandemic presents different challenges for each of us. Though the weight we all must shoulder during these times is heavy, for certain segments of society, it is heavier still.


Jeffrey Miller is a member of Equality Law in Europe: A New Generation, a project of the EUI-based Academy of European Law.  He is also an Assistant Professor at Gallaudet University in Washington, DC.