Pandemic has presented benefits and unique challenges for disabled


The COVID-19 pandemic has presented a set of unique challenges for disabled people.

Hosted by the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, the “Holes in the Safety Net: The Forgotten Needs of People with Disabilities Under Quarantine” town hall discussion on June 24 focused on the countless ways the pandemic has affected disabled people.

Panelists included Brad Dicianno, an associate professor in the School of Medicine and director of the UPMC Adult Spina Bifida Clinic; Catherine Getchell, the director of the Office of Disability Services at Carnegie Mellon University; Heather Tomko, outreach coordinator for the National Research and Training Center in Family Support; and Kenneth De Haan, a professor in the Department of ASL & Deaf Studies at Gallaudet University.

Angie Bedford-Jack — digital accessibility coordinator for the Office of Diversity and Inclusion —and Leigh Culley, director of Pitt’s Disability Resources and Services, moderated the event.

Culley said the pandemic has uncovered many societal failings that have adversely impacted disabled people.

People with pre-existing conditions have had an especially difficult time during the pandemic, Bedford Jack said.

Since the pandemic began, advocacy groups and people with disabilities and the people who work with them have told Dicianno there have been barriers to accessing food, basic supplies, telemedicine and public transportation.

Getchell said that through her own experiences with blindness and through her students, she’s also noticed that the isolation that comes from social distancing has been particularly hard on people with disabilities.

People with and without disabilities have many common struggles during this time, she said.

“This feels like a time when, in a way, if you think about it, we all have a disability,” Getchell said. “We’re all limited in how much we can travel. Where is it safe for us to go and to be? We’re all maybe more reliant upon others than ever before.”

Many people with disabilities also have struggled with employment, a lack of home support and many other issues. The pandemic has been especially tough on people with pre-existing mental health conditions, she added.

To overcome these barriers, Tomko said she has had to rely on a support system and careful “risk calculations” when it came to gathering basic supplies since her pre-existing medical conditions make her especially susceptible to the virus. However, not everyone has access to a support system, Tomko said.

Further, the increased reliance on communication technology such as Zoom has increased the need for digital accessibility, Getchell said. There has been a lack of access to interpreting and accurate close captioning for people who are deaf and hard of hearing, Getchell said, among other issues.

These issues aren’t brand new among people with disabilities, De Haan said, communicating through a sign language interpreter.

While people with disabilities have struggled with adjusting to the pandemic, Dicianno and the other panelists also saw opportunities for improvement.

For example, hospitals like UPMC have adopted new policies to allow patients access to a support person, and some states are creating more laws to combat potential human and civil rights violations at hospitals, Dicianno said.

Tomko, who uses a wheelchair, said virtual meetings are easier to attend than physical meetings, especially since she doesn’t have to consider parking, transportation and building accessibility.

Additionally, the pandemic has forced an increase in universal design concepts — the option to work from home, delays on rent payments, increased availability of telehealth, and increased delivery services — that help people with and without disabilities alike

And the expansion of universal design concepts stands to benefit everyone in the end, Cullen said. This can be a starting point for improving access for people with disabilities.

“I think a lot of the research shows that universal design concepts benefit all individuals, so certainly starting the principals of universal design as a platform can certainly move to benefit all types of individuals within the environment, the academic environment in particular,” Cullen said.

Donovan Harrell is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at or 412-383-9905.


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