#MyDisabledLifeIsWorthy highlights disability community's pandemic frustrations: 'We are seen as collateral damage'

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#MyDisabledLifeIsWorthy has been trending following an interview with Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (Photo: Shawn Thew/Pool via REUTERS)

"Folks have pushed the narrative of vulnerable people's lives being disposable for this entire pandemic," read a tweet earlier this month.

"Rather than ignore people with complex medical conditions, or blame or happily sacrifice us, what about listening to us just a little and giving us a seat at the table before more people who used to be healthy join our ranks with #LongCovid?” vented another Twitter user.

They were just two of the messages tagged #MyDisabledLifeIsWorthy, a hashtag that's gone viral as the disabled community calls out Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) director Dr. Rochelle Walensky and an overall attitude that's left high-risk individuals feeling expendable during the pandemic.

Disability rights and inclusion activist Imani Barbarin started the #MyDisabledLifeIsWorthy hashtag — a sentiment that’s since been echoed thousands of times on social media — in response to Walensky’s Jan. 7 appearance on Good Morning America, in which the presence of underlying conditions in those who have died from COVID-19 was framed as “encouraging news.”

“The overwhelming number of deaths — over 75 percent — occurred in people who had at least four comorbidities. So really, these are people who were unwell to begin with. And yes: really encouraging news in the context of Omicron,” said Walensky, who later said her remarks had been taken out of context. (A full interview released by ABC News showed the CDC director explaining that in a study of 1.2 million vaccinated people, 0.003 percent died of COVID-19, many of whom had underlying conditions; that vaccinations appeared to be preventing fatalities is what Walensky took to be encouraging.)

That Walensky’s remarks angered so many in the disability community — who took to Twitter to speak out about feeling unprotected and unvalued at a time when opposition to mask-wearing and vaccine mandates remains considerable, and accessibility is compromised — is emblematic of nearly two years of ongoing frustration with a society that is rushing to return to business as usual while leaving high-risk individuals isolated and vulnerable.

“When public officials bring the fight to people with disabilities, the community responds,” disability rights advocate Rebecca Cokley tells Yahoo Life.

Robyn Powell, a Stetson University College of Law professor who teaches disability law, adds that disabled and chronically ill people have long been excluded from conversations that directly involve them, particularly at a time in which data shows that disabled people are at a higher risk of developing severe illness or dying from COVID-19. The ongoing pandemic response has abandoned rather than protected the most vulnerable, with inconsistent health measures and “everybody for themselves” mindsets. It's larger than a single presidential administration; and indeed, it’s not simply an American issue, either. Just days ago British Prime Minister Boris Johnson raised the ire of the U.K. disabled community by announcing plans to scrap mandatory mask-wearing and other COVID-19 restrictions that would have helped protect high-risk people. Across the globe, these ideologies spread the message that disabled people are inherently inferior.

“On a personal level, I cannot emphasize just how disheartening it has been to realize how ableist our society is,” Powell, who is herself disabled, says. “I mean, I knew it, but the pandemic has brought it to new levels. We are seen as collateral damage.”

Disability rights advocates say the community is being considered
Disability rights advocates say the community is being considered "collateral damage" during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo: Getty Creative stock image) (spukkato via Getty Images)

The Twitter outburst prompted Walensky to publicly apologize and meet with disability rights activists on Jan. 14, but her comments have broader meanings. For disabled people, they paint a picture of a not-so-new normal, where disabled people are deemed less worthy and expendable.

Notions that only “sick” people die have led us to defend ourselves, Cokley said. “Disabled people are forced to speak, if not yell, about our right to survive,” she said. And the pandemic, specifically the past few months, has proven that — as Cokley said — “we cannot, and will not, rely on the benevolence of nondisabled people to align themselves with us.”

She is calling for policy change, but the reality is: it's more than a law or two. It's about recognizing the humanity in disabled and chronically ill people.

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