Opinion | Civil Rights

People who have been overlooked during COVID-19: Adults with disabilities

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

As coronavirus threatens the country, government officials have taken great care to speak directly to various groups of Americans, including seniors, Millennials, Gen Z and nearly everyone in between. But there is one group of Americans officials have so far failed to address directly, reflecting one of this nation's oldest and most harmful prejudices: adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD).

More than six million Americans have been diagnosed as having what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention define as an intellectual disability, according to the American Association of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.

Such individuals were born with limitations in intellectual functioning that affect their conceptual, social and practical skills. In addition to that group, there are estimated to be another 3 million-plus Americans on the autism spectrum. Such individuals may display non-typical behaviors in social interactions and communication, tend to hyper-focus on a singular topic and demonstrate repetitive physical habits.

Many adults with IDD rely daily on the assistance of others for their basic needs to be met. This means social distancing may not just be inconvenient or lonely, but could actually eliminate their sources of basic care, like food, transportation, assistance with hygiene, or critical emotional support.

Individuals with IDD may also be extremely routine-oriented and thrive in structure, or have high sensitivity to sound or light. Others communicate in non-traditional forms, utilizing hand signs or what's known as assistive technology that utilizes pictures or a keyboard to depict a message. 

To neglect their needs during the worst pandemic in more than a century puts lives at risk and can cause unnecessary hardships for the wider community. Many people with IDD have underlying medical needs, and comorbidity of psychiatric disorders is as high as 40 percent. Without ensuring proper care and support during what is a highly stressful time even for the most emotionally stable among us, an unnecessary medical or psychiatric emergency could easily occur. 

Trump ran on a platform of "making America great again." While he never specified how he defines those terms, for me, America is a great country because we long-ago established that people with disabilities are no less valuable than their counterparts. 

Now that we are facing a public health crisis, the White House's COVID-19 response team should address the unique issues many people with IDD face. An easy way to start is by simply including them when addressing the American people.

Next, they must create a plan to address how local communities can better support residents with IDD. For example, many businesses are designating hours of operation just for seniors, in order to address their unique susceptibility to Coronavirus. Why not do the same for adults with IDD, who may have mobility considerations or require a caregiver to escort them? 

Finally, the White House can create a website with resources for people with IDD and its service providers and caregivers. This would not only help address the current crisis but also prepare us for the future.

Lisa Sigafoos, Ph.D. is an expert on special education and disability studies at The University of Texas at Austin. 

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