Your “only” is my everything. 

This saying has become something of a slogan for people with disabilities and their families in Canada throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. It is popping up at the grassroots as people reclaim the value of life with a disability. When friends and neighbours say things like “Don’t worry, Coronavirus is usually only harmful to the elderly and the frail, people with compromised immune systems or disabilities,” our networks respond:

Only people with disabilities? Your “only” is my everything.

People with intellectual disabilities and their families know what it’s like to be devalued – to be seen to be less worthy or excluded. As our nation builds response plans and triage guidelines for when COVID-19 worsens and medical resources must be rationed, people with intellectual disabilities and their families fear exclusion more than ever. 

People with disabilities, including intellectual disabilities, on an equal basis with others must be given access to healthcare and lifesaving measures. Decision-making regarding allocation of scarce health resources must not discriminate against people with disabilities.

This is a human right, as protected in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the UN Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.  

The Canadian Association for Community Living is calling for Canada’s Ministers of Health, and Public Health Officers (federally, and in all provinces and territories) to make sure that people who live in Canada are not triaged out of care – skipped over in line for a respirator or life support-  because they have an intellectual disability. Having a “cognitive impairment” must never make someone less likely to receive treatment. Needing more time, or explanation, or support in decision making must not be seen as a drain on resources. In short, difficult decisions must not be made on the grounds of existing disabilities or the support those disabilities require. If people with disabilities can benefit from treatment, treatment must be made available to them on an equal basis with others. 

Further, “quality of life” must not be part of the equation. When triaging protocols allow for medical practitioners to make decisions based on their perceptions of “quality of life,” people with intellectual disabilities lose out. People who do not have a disability rank the quality of life of people with disabilities lower than people with experience living with a disability.  And a purely utilitarian approach (the greatest good for the greatest number of people) in a pandemic makes people with disabilities extremely vulnerable. 

We cannot lose track of our national commitment to equity during this crisis. Canada and each of its provinces and territories, has an opportunity to signal to the world that we are leaders in human rights. The lives of people with disabilities, including intellectual disabilities, depend on it. 

The third instalment in our COVID-19 series of blog posts is now available here.