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Malhotra and Dojeiji: Vaccine Policy is Ignoring People With Disabilities

At this stage, what is desperately needed is a dedicated venue that would allow people with disabilities to access vaccines safely, in a stress-free environment. Author of the article:
Ravi Malhotra, Sue Dojeiji

Publishing date:
May 06, 2021

As Canadians from all walks of life line up for COVID-19 vaccines, it is becoming clear that people with disabilities are once again being ignored.

The recent passage of the Accessible Canada Act in 2019 marked a commitment by the federal government to include people with disabilities as full citizens through barrier removal and accommodation. This followed the 2005 enactment of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA). These statutes were meant to signal a turning point away from the deep poverty and unemployment that is experienced by far too many people with disabilities every day. They suggested that Canadian society was now committed to systematically identifying and removing the barriers in all spheres of society so that the talents of people with disabilities could be fostered for the betterment of all.

Yet the vaccine rollout shines a bright light on the disparities that continue to plague people with disabilities. Amidst confusing and sometimes contradictory information, ambiguous prioritization criteria and multiple registration systems which do not always work and entail long delays, many people with disabilities risk once again being left behind.

A significant proportion of people with disabilities do not have access to cars, making it more difficult to access pharmacies often distant from home or to be able to arrive at an appointment on short notice. Many others may not have access to reliable internet connections, rendering navigation of multiple web sites a nightmare. People with visual impairments often face additional challenges when websites are not designed with their needs in mind. And people with speech impairments often face ignorance and stigma when trying to communicate with government authorities due to a lack of awareness of appropriate communication technology.

In a world where even able bodied people are forced to rely on vaccine-hunting services on Twitter to find them vaccines, the challenges facing people with disabilities are daunting.

This is unfortunate because many people with disabilities clearly have medical conditions that place them at significantly greater risk for bad outcomes should they get COVID-19. And as renowned disability rights advocate David Lepofsky has noted, there are real worries that people with disabilities will be disadvantaged should triage become necessary due to a shortage of ICU beds. Yet the current prioritization system has failed to clearly allow people with disabilities to be vaccinated.

At this juncture, what is desperately needed is a dedicated venue that would allow people with disabilities to access vaccines safely and expeditiously in a stress-free environment. Instead of a confusing mishmash of options, people with disabilities should be vaccinated at one site.

Fortunately there is no need to reinvent the wheel: such one-stop shopping venues already exist. Rehabilitation centres across Canada already serve the needs of people with disabilities, both those who require acute rehabilitation care after becoming injured, and those who require lifelong rehabilitation follow-up care.

Making rehabilitation centres into dedicated vaccination sites for people with disabilities would solve multiple problems at once. It would remove the chaos that the current fragmented registration system creates, conducting the vaccinations at a venue which is fully accessible to the needs of people with disabilities. People with disabilities could be assured that they can be fully vaccinated in a timely manner by health-care providers who have cared for them for years.

Ontario must honour the full promise of the AODA by creating vaccination sites at rehabilitation centres across the province today.

Ravi Malhotra is a Full Professor at the Faculty of Law, Common Law Section and the School of Rehabilitation Sciences, University of Ottawa. Twitter: @RaviMalh. Sue Dojeiji is Neuromuscular Physiatrist and Clinician Educator at the Rehabilitation Centre.

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