Tuesday, March 15, 2022

Solomon Center Hosts Panel on COVID-19 & Disability

archway with inscription at YLS

The Solomon Center for Health Law and Policy and the Disabled Law Students Association at Yale Law School hosted a panel on March 14 on the broad impact of COVID-19 on people with disabilities and how to use lessons learned during the pandemic to advance disability justice. The panel included Rachel Arfa, Commissioner of the City of Chicago Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities (MOPD); Rebecca Cokley, the Program Officer for the first U.S. Disability Rights Program at the Ford Foundation; Jessica Roberts ’06, Director of the Health Law & Policy Institute and Leonard Childs Professor in Law at University of Houston Law Center; and Silvia Yee, Senior Staff Attorney at the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund (DREDF). Edward Friedman ’24 moderated the discussion.

The panelists each began by addressing why disability justice is important as a public policy issue and what brought them to their work. Cokley led by saying, “Every issue is a disability policy issue, and there is no justice in this country on any issue that we collectively try to engage with or improve that leaves out disabled people.”

Panelists went on to discuss the prevalence of people with disabilities in communities everywhere. Arfa discussed her role in the Chicago mayor’s office and her experience as a deaf person. Yee emphasized that when disability justice is considered a “special interest” issue, the purpose of disability advocacy is misconstrued and people with disabilities are discounted. 

The panel was asked to describe the landscape of disability justice pre-pandemic, specifically the impact of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990. Roberts spoke about the transformative power of the law, with the caveat that there are still many strides to be made and equity gaps to be closed. She noted that we must acknowledge that “the disparities and inequalities that were exhausted by the pandemic predate it.” Cokley further elaborated by describing the ADA as a “floor” that needs to be protected and expanded upon, but that can’t be considered all-encompassing. Arfa emphasized the crucial expansion of protections under the 2008 ADA Amendments Act and how it broadened the definition of disability. She also clarified that many forms of access, particularly those in the workplace and in communications, come at very little expense despite popular belied. Silvia also added that the ADA — and other civil rights laws — don’t adequately address implicit bias and systemic bias.

The panelists discussed many issues related to disability that were exacerbated by the pandemic and some of the good that has come out of it. Roberts and Arfa both touched on access issues in the digital environment, automated bias, and the importance of building technologies with people with disabilities in mind. Arfa also highlighted the need for intersectional representation and inclusivity in disability spaces. Yee warned against institutionalization as the default care solution for people with disabilities, noting that the pandemic revealed the dangerous inadequacies of some institutions. Roberts discussed access in education and the challenges with returning to primarily in-person education, stressing the value of having options to meet the needs of everyone. All of the panelists mentioned the importance enforcing disability rights and how the burden of advocacy and doing the important work often falls on people with disabilities.

The panel included a robust Q&A session with the virtual and in-person audiences. Topics included access to health care, voting, employment, paid family leaves, developing accessible technologies, the retirement system, and the value of narrative change and building disability organizations. Throughout the conversation, panelists brought social determinants of health — conditions that surround people and affect their health — to the forefront of every issue.