During the spring of 2020, the COVID-19 crisis began to unfold in the U.S. Legal scholars exploring the impact of the pandemic on people with disabilities focused much of their attention on triage protocols. These scholars debated the legality and ethics of using patient disability as a basis for rationing ventilators in the face of then-looming ventilator shortages at hospitals. At least initially, stay-at-home orders across the country were successful in “flattening the curve” and reducing the demand for ventilators. However, the pandemic’s widespread disruption of American life caused broader, unexpected consequences for people with disabilities.
Jasmine Harris has described disability law’s inability to keep up with these consequences as the “frailty” of disability rights, noting that the enforcement of disability laws effectively become “optional and aspirational” in the face of an emergency. These rollbacks of civil rights form part of a broader, “widespread attack” on disability rights.
This essay explores one dimension of disability law’s COVID-related “frailty”: how the pandemic has undermined equal access to employment and healthcare for Americans who are deaf, hard of hearing or DeafBlind as healthcare and employment migrate toward telehealth and telework activities. This essay’s authors—a clinical law professor, a policy attorney for a national organization representing Americans who are deaf, hard of hearing or DeafBlind, and a computer scientist—have collaborated over the past months on detailed advocacy documents that will help deaf patients and employers navigate the complex new circumstances of telehealth and telework. This essay presents a brief survey of some of the difficult legal and technical issues we have encountered in healthcare and workplace accessibility for Americans who are deaf, hard of hearing or DeafBlind in the pandemic-induced virtual world…