Cover the Coronavirus without Being an Ableist Asshole

Photo credit: Jonathan Borba/Unsplash

You’re not alone if you’re worried about coronavirus: It’s impossible to turn on the news or open social media without being confronted with alarming words like “pandemic” and “quarantine.” When I went to the doctor’s office earlier this week, there were signs posted on the doors asking anyone with a fever or cough to stay away; and folks working the waiting room’s front desk were wiping down phones, pens, and clipboards. My doctor told me patients were stealing hand sanitizer out of exam rooms; grocery-store shelves are emptying quickly; and drugstores are running out of over-the-counter medications, including pain relievers and cough syrup. It truly feels like we’re living in a dystopia, so we will all be forgiven for panicking.

While knowing we’ll soon see a spike in the number of coronavirus cases might induce reasonable fear, the onset of this pandemic doesn’t excuse the rampant ableism that’s marred much of the recent discourse about the spread and danger of COVID-19. When the World Health Organization began sounding the alarm about the inevitability of the virus coming to the United States, for instance, a friend texted me a screenshot of someone’s glib Twitter joke about staying home and going “stir crazy.” We rolled our eyes in tandem; endometriosis has rendered both of us housebound at numerous times throughout our lives. And as news stories about coronavirus increasingly filled my social-media feeds, so did ableist jokes.

I know humor can be an effective way to cope with the darkness of this moment, joining friends and even strangers in camaraderie when the world feels scary and uncertain. But for those of us living with the limitations of chronic illness or disability, it’s difficult to conjure empathy for people who are responding to this epidemic by making light of, poking fun at, or composing ostensibly witty complaints about situations that we typically have no choice but to endure. It can be frustrating—and even triggering—to be constantly reminded that situations you live with every day are considered grim by others or that they’d be miserable if they were forced to share your reality.

Those reminders came into sharp focus on March 10, when the New York Times published an op-ed titled “Sorry, but Working from Home Is Overrated” that argued, among other things, that while “working from home is a good option for new parents, people with disabilities, and others who aren’t well served by a traditional office setup,” remote workers are less creative and innovative because they’re unable to solve problems as quickly as those who work in offices. Kevin Roose’s article made me see red: I often worked remotely for research work in law school, and have worked remotely in the months since I graduated—and I’m plenty productive and creative. Roose’s drive-by reference to disability reeked of ableism because, for the tens of millions of people living with disabilities and chronic illness, remote work is an accommodation—not a self-centered preference.

That’s especially true when you consider that such accommodations are hard to come by: Telecommuting options have increased in recent years, though statistics show these are offered mostly to educated, older, full-time, and nonunion workers. A recent Gallup poll found that less than half of Americans are working remotely despite their findings that it is effective and productive. Studies show that allowing employees to work remotely encourages more equality in the workforce by allowing more people with chronic illness and disabilities to participate; and some surveyed employees even report that they perform better in remote arrangements.

There’s also an inherent ableism—and, quite frankly, selfishness—in able-bodied people complaining about having to work from home or, even worse, going to work when they’re feeling sick. People with chronic illness or disabilities are used to sacrificing work and socializing for our health; we know it’s frustrating. But when you decide to disobey directives and protocols from health officials, you’re not considering the health of those who are most at risk of both contracting and dying from coronavirus. Empathy is crucial in these times: As Anne Helen Peterson points out in an article for BuzzFeed, we shouldn’t measure our preparedness by how many rolls of toilet paper and cases of water we have, but by taking stock of how our actions affect others. “[O]ur habits, our compulsions, and our desire to keep living life completely as usual—because there’s (seemingly) nothing wrong with us—will have ripple effects that will almost certainly lead to other people’s deaths or significant illnesses,” she writes.

And sometimes, people say that quiet part out loud: Every time a news anchor prefaces a story about preparedness by emphasizing that COVID-19 has mostly affected the elderly and immunocompromised, it sends a clear message that only some people’s well-being is valuable and worthy of real concern. It has been similarly horrific to see people who rely on medical supplies to remain safe panicking online because they’re unable to access basic supplies, like hand sanitizer and masks, due to people hoarding them. And it’s both disheartening and elucidating to see how quickly employers across a range of fields, as well officials at colleges and universities, have made accommodations that would have benefited disabled and chronically ill folks in the past—returning to disposable silverware in the food-service industry, increased work-from-home options, and, of course, enabling distance-learning curriculums.

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After being diagnosed with endometriosis in my first year of law school, I fought to receive similar accommodations from my university. When my pain made the hour-long commute to campus untenable, I was told it was impossible to attend class remotely; instead, the school asked me to drop classes—and, at one point, to drop an entire semester—after they were already underway. I lost thousands of tuition dollars and even took out a student loan in order to rent an apartment closer to campus, all to avoid falling further behind. Now, though, my alma mater is allowing all its students to attend remote classes—an option I was once told didn’t exist. Though I understand that we’re living in dire times, I hope the university’s ability to pivot at a moment’s notice forces its administrators to consider how everyone’s worst nightmare can be a single person’s perpetual reality.

So, where does this leave us? How can we manage our understandable anxieties and protect ourselves and others from the spread of coronavirus without resorting to being ableist assholes?

Check Your Privilege and Gain Some Perspective

Before you hit send on that tweet that laments having to stay home and missing out on that school event, concert, or trip you were looking forward to, consider that such experiences are commonplace for disabled and chronically ill folks. A good rule of thumb is to listen to disabled and chronically ill people, follow them on social media, and read what they’re saying—not only about coronavirus but about healthcare in general. Many people are learning the hard way that the world isn’t built for people who are sick, but those of us who live with chronic illness or disability know this already. People living with chronic illness or disability also have an acute awareness of how tenuous our relationship with situational ease is; in my senior year of college, I could’ve never fathomed the hell I was about to endure in law school. COVID-19 is a stark reminder that while little is promised, perspective, preparedness, and compassion is always necessary.

There’s also an inherent ableism—and, quite frankly, selfishness—in able-bodied people complaining about having to work from home or, even worse, going to work when they’re feeling sick.

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Consider Those Who Have No Choice but to Interact with the Public

Working from home is not a possibility for a number of people, especially those who work in retail, the service industry, or healthcare. Though coronavirus will inevitably impact more than half of the U.S. population, some workers still have to leave their homes every day and interact with people who may have the virus. That makes it even more critical for those who are able-bodied and not infected to work remotely if they can. It’s their responsibility to limit social interaction; to look out for those who don’t have that option.

Don’t Downplay Coronavirus by Focusing on Low-Risk People

It’s important to center the needs of high-risk people who can’t afford to contract COVID-19. If you’re acting as if high-risk people are expendable, then you’re being ableist. When you assume that people are able-bodied because they’re young, you’re being ableist. When you try to reassure another person by saying “Don’t worry, it only affects [insert marginalized population here]” you’re assuming the person with whom you’re speaking is not a part of that community. (In fact, just go ahead and never make assumptions about someone else’s health based on their age or appearance.) COVID-19 has created a panic-tier system: Some of us are being told that we shouldn’t concern ourselves with the pandemic. We’re privileged enough to not care, while others have to shoulder the burden of worrying all the time. This is ableist. Our current discourse reinforces the reality that some of our lives are more deserving of being fraught with worry and risk, but warding off coronavirus is on all of us.

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by Caroline Reilly
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Caroline Reilly is a student at Boston College Law School and a reproductive justice advocate. She has also written for Bust and Frontline (PBS). You can follower her on Twitter @ms_creilly, where she tweets about abortion rights, social justice, and being a feminist killjoy.