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COVID-19 shining a light on ableism



It is now fairly trite to talk about these ‘exceptional’ times in relation to COVID-19. Isolation, quarantine, mask-wearing, working from home have all become buzzwords. The disruption the pandemic has wrought in all of our lives has been immense. With disruption, however, has come a consciousness that many of the social structures and assumptions we have taken for granted for so long are not, in fact, graven in stone.

Flinders Street station under Stage Four lockdowns (Asanka Ratnayake/Getty Images)

Others have pointed out how the pandemic has lit up the areas in which our neoliberal economies are basically unfit for the purpose of providing healthy and safe environments — whether it be privatised aged care homes and quarantine services or ‘the gig economy’, which forces sick people to ‘soldier on’ infecting people as they go. One area that has been rather less considered, however, is disability.

On the one hand, COVID-19 has been a scourge which has affected people with disabilities more than others. As the Disability Royal Commission has been hearing, group homes and ‘special’ schools have been afflicted with the same combination of malign neglect, no government planning and low wage workers as aged care facilities. As with older people, people with disabilities are often at higher risk from complications from COVID-19 and in need of the kind of close-up physical assistance which puts them and others at increased risk of contagion.

Coupled with this has been the damaging reporting on disability which often strikes an openly eugenicist tone. Warnings that economic lockdown will do more damage than the virus and demands for open borders often carry an implicit (indeed sometimes explicit) subtext that some will die for the good of the rest and that the ‘useless eaters’ (as the Nazis described us) should be sacrificed. Indeed, years before the pandemic struck, the former social services minister and the largest media empire in the country were on record as referring to money spent on people with disability as a ‘burden’.

On the flip-side, there is the undeniable fact that some things have become easier if you have a disability. I, for one, am glad that I do not have to take the train to work anymore and brave the inaccessible horror that is Flinders Street Station. No longer do I need to scurry from platform to platform trying to find out from bemused station-workers (who often know as much as I do) when/where/if the scheduled train is arriving.

People who were previously refused accommodations to work from home are now mandated to use them as a result of lockdown regimes. People who previously found that they could not gain access to food or basic necessities now find that online shopping and food delivery are becoming the norm.


'All of these changes — both the bad and the good — suggest that the virus is shining a light on the hidden assumptions and structures behind the world of disability in the same way as it is doing in other economic and social spheres.'


These more positive developments seem to vindicate the so-called ‘social’ model of disability. This sees disability as a problem resting in society, rather than the individual. On this reading of disability, the inability of a blind person to access great literature or of a wheelchair user to enter a building is seen as lying in society’s inability to provide the work in accessible format or to provide an entry ramp. This contrasts with the older ‘medical model’ which sees disability as the individual’s problem: ‘If you could only see/hear/walk etc, then you could be part of society.’ Given that you can’t, society is closed to you. 

Now that many (with an obvious disability or not) are now provided with accommodations, doors previously shut are beginning to people with disability. Society has moved to accommodate the needs of the able-bodied and — by a sidewind — has included those with disabilities, where such inclusion was previously deemed impossible.

All of these changes — both the bad and the good — suggest that the virus is shining a light on the hidden assumptions and structures behind the world of disability in the same way as it is doing in other economic and social spheres. The quarantine and aged-care debacles are showing the limits of a venal economy based on greed and private profits from the delivery of essential government services.

In the same way, the open voicing of eugenicist arguments even while societies are forced to provide accommodations that people with disabilities have fruitlessly been demanding for decades reveals how much of a social choice the exclusion of disabled people really is. On balance, this has to be a good thing. If things previously hidden can now be openly discussed, perhaps they can also be changed. 



Justin GlynFr Justin Glyn SJ has a licentiate in canon law from St Paul University in Ottawa. Before entering the Society he practised law in South Africa and New Zealand and has a PhD in administrative and international law.

Main image: Flinders Street station under Stage Four lockdowns (Asanka Ratnayake/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Justin Glyn, COVID-19, disability, ableism, social model



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Existing comments

Thank you Justin for your perceptive and informative reflection, and for inviting us to 'walk in your shoes'. This pandemic really is offering the opportunity to move beyond our habitual thinking on a whole range of issues.

Michael Loughnane | 25 August 2020  

One area of discussion in light of the current pandemic is the supposed expendability of some human lives. This would largely include a number of residents of nursing homes: the theory being that these people are near the end of life anyway, they have dementia and/or other significant health issues so 'why be precious about their life'. That sort of thinking can then extend to those with a disability if not strongly refuted. And I for one will always strongly refute it. One of my five grandchildren has a significant physical and intellectual disability and her life is so significantly valuable there can be no argument, no ifs, no buts.

Pam | 25 August 2020  

A very thought-provoking reflection, Justin. The word "ableism", for example, conjures up competence rather than disability and draws attention to the vast range of impairment associated with disability or "unableness". Some with disability, for example, may be more able in some areas that others of no apparent disability. In the modern world we have, I think, progressed beyond the eugenic controlled outbreeding of congenital disability popularised in modern society by Aldous Huxley's fictional Utopia brought to life in his 1932 fictional masterpiece, Brave New World, and championed in 1935 by Alexis Carrel in his science-based, non-fiction Man the Unknown. Carrel's work which, unlike Huxley's, championed eugenic breeding and state-sponsored murder for the disabled and non-contributory members of society in his book which inspired Hitler's concept of the master race and the justification of elimination of the Jewish people. Our society has "developed beyond such barbarity" for the benefit of many through ethical genetic modification. In parallel, however, we have also in many quarters accepted and sanctioned state-sponsored murder through abortion of foetuses on suspicion of abnormality and euthanasia of those with disease or disability we cannot cure. We have developed a new brand of barbarity. As John O'Grady reckoned, We're a weird Mob! This society needs to seek out the "ableism" and care for that rather than the "disableism". If we did that the "disableism" would benefit enormously.

john frawley | 25 August 2020  

I am very disappointed with the government failing to provide a fortnightly coronavirus supplement to people on disability payments. Untill this government chooses to provide a fortnightly coronavirus supplement also to help those most in need: the disabled. This government will rightly be considered a sad and mean one.

AO | 25 August 2020  

Dr John Frawley - interestingly in the same field of medicine as the late Alexis Carrel, vascular surgery - is quite correct in bringing attention to the latter's eugenist leaning and recommendations. Leni Riefenstahl's film "Triumph of the Will" was the ultimate artistic paean to this society of 'superhumans'. To me this sort of society is really a Hell on Earth. You only have to look at the Nazis' trail of death both at home and abroad to see this. Doctors and nurses were murdering the disabled right up to the capitulation of Germany. Some of the recent 'voluntary' assisted suicides of the mentally ill in Belgium and the Netherlands strike me as being in similar vein. We have some very sophistic arguments being advanced in favour of this sort of extreme euthanasia and extremely late term abortions in this country. The Judaeo-Christian-Muslim ethic is totally opposed to this. I am glad we are not as 'advanced' in our attitudes as some other countries, but I can see the propaganda out to bring us round. May it never succeed! Well spoken Justin!

Edward Fido | 26 August 2020  

Great article, Justin, generating some insightful and supportive comments; and crucial that you exercised your epistemic privilege to speak up!

Michael FURTADO | 27 August 2020  

Call me a pessimist but I doubt anything good can come from COVID for those with disabilities. For nearly a decade I’ve been taking part in annual “pub crawls” around Rockhampton and Yeppoon in Central Queensland. Some of us were in borrowed wheelchairs, others blind-folded etc., while some of the group actually do live with a serious disability. We take notes of accessibility issues getting into and using venues and also moving around town between venues. We then let the venues (and councils) know how they scored. Very few of the issues we have raised have been resolved by the businesses or government. With the financial hit they have taken with COVID, I think progress is even less likely now, with “greed and private profits” becoming even more dominant in our “venal economy”.

Julie Davies | 09 October 2020  

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