Hand arranging wood block pyramid with health icons on each block.

Does the ADA Protect People with Substance Use Disorder from Health Care Discrimination?

By Hannah Rahim

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits health care organizations that provide services to the public from discriminating against persons with disabilities. Although substance use disorder can be a disability under the ADA, there are limitations in the scope and enforcement of these ADA protections. Further action is needed to prevent discrimination in health care services towards persons with substance use disorder.

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Participants listening to lecture in lecture hall.

A Categorical No to Categorical Accommodation Denials Related to COVID-19?

By Katherine Macfarlane and Irina Manta

Since fall 2021, when most colleges and universities reopened their campuses to in-person activities, it has become increasingly difficult for faculty and students with disabilities to obtain reasonable accommodations to teach or attend class remotely. Remote accommodations were granted freely during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, but in 2021, the in-person aspect of teaching and learning was suddenly deemed essential, and at many institutions, remote classes came to an end. Despite federal disability law’s requirement that each reasonable accommodation request be assessed individually, faculty and students alike were met with bright-line policies that remote teaching and learning were out of the question.

The language and logic used to deny these accommodations at universities across the country was suspiciously similar. We wondered to ourselves whether a memo had been circulated instructing universities about which magic words to employ to deny each accommodation request. But no matter what words are used, across-the-board policies that do not contemplate accommodation-based exceptions and fail to assess accommodation requests on an individual basis do not comply with federal disability law. A recent federal case brought by a high-risk professor against his university employer has recognized these well-settled principles and highlighted the problem with formulaic denials.

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Hands with blue protective nitride gloves holding N95 respirator.

A Patient’s Right to Masked Health Care Providers

By Katherine A. Macfarlane

In May 2023, Mass General Brigham instructed its patients that they “cannot ask staff members to wear a mask because our policies no longer require it.”

Following patient protests, the hospital updated its policies with an imperfect fix, announcing that “patients can ask, but providers determine when and if masking in a particular situation is clinically necessary.”

This episode highlights the uneasy circumstances that people with disabilities face in the U.S. while accessing essential care: On the one hand, the law surrounding reasonable modifications in health care is well-settled. On the other, the practical reality of U.S. health care leaves little room for individualized accommodation and self-advocating patients vulnerable to retaliation.

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Gavel and stethoscope.

Public Health Law and Civil Rights Laws Must Work Together to Rise to the Challenge of Long COVID

By Elizabeth Pendo

Amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the need for public health laws and policies that align with and reinforce civil rights protections for disproportionately impacted populations is greater than ever. In particular, disability rights laws will be critical for responding to the millions of Americans who experience lasting or recurring symptoms after acute COVID-19 infection (commonly referred to as “long COVID”). This article will discuss the importance of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in protecting the rights of people with long COVID and other disabilities in the workplace, in health care, and in disability and other benefits in order to chart an equitable path forward.

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person walking away from a surgical mask lying on the ground.

Personal Crusades for Public Health

By Katherine Macfarlane 

Public health in the U.S. has collapsed. In its place, we are left with an insufficient, impoverished alternative: personal crusades. This essay describes the cost of casting aside what is best for the public’s health in favor of individual choice, especially to those who are high-risk for serious illness or death from COVID-19. It explores how they must negotiate public health measures on their own.

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Washington, D.C. skyline with highways and monuments.

COVID-19 as Disability Interest Convergence?

By Jasmine E. Harris

Some have suggested that the COVID-19 pandemic could be a moment of what critical race theorist Derrick Bell called “interest convergence,” where majority interests align with those of a minority group to create a critical moment for social change.

It would be easy to think that interests indeed have converged between disabled and nondisabled people in the United States. From education to employment, modifications deemed “unreasonable” became not only plausible but streamlined with broad support.

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person walking away from a surgical mask lying on the ground.

The Mask-Optional DEI Initiative

By Matt Dowell

Recently, I remotely attended a mask-optional, in-person meeting where campus leaders proudly proclaimed that DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) is my college’s “top priority.”

As a disabled faculty member who writes about disability access in higher education, I found myself considering how to make sense of such a statement — how seriously to take such statements, how much to care that such statements are being made.

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Medical Hospital: Neurologist and Neurosurgeon Talk, Use Computer, Analyse Patient MRI Scan, Diagnose Brain. Brain Surgery Health Clinic Lab: Two Professional Physicians Look at CT Scan. Close-up.

Creating Brain-Forward Policies Amid a ‘Mass Deterioration Event’

By Emily R.D. Murphy

COVID-19 will be with us — in our society and in our brains — for the foreseeable future. Especially as death and severe illness rates have dropped since the introduction of vaccines and therapeutics, widespread and potentially lasting brain effects of COVID have become a significant source of discussion, fear, and even pernicious rumors about the privileged deliberately seeking competitive economic advantages by avoiding COVID (by continuing to work from home and use other peoples’ labor to avoid exposures) and its consequent brain damage.

This symposium contribution focuses specifically on COVID’s lasting effects in our brains, about which much is still unknown. It is critical to focus on this — notwithstanding the uncertainty about what happens, to how many, and for how long — for two reasons. First, brain problems (and mental health) are largely invisible and thus overlooked and deprioritized. And second, our current disability laws and policies that might be thought to deal with the problem are not up to the looming task. Instead, we should affirmatively consider what brain-forward policies and governance could look like, building on lessons from past pandemics and towards a future of more universal support and structural accommodation of diminishment as well as disability.

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London, England, UK, January 22nd 2022, Long covid symptoms sign on pharmacy shop window UK.

Mobilizing Long COVID Awareness to Better Support People with Acquired Disabilities

By Marissa Wagner Mery

Long COVID exposes an often-unacknowledged facet of disability: that one is far more likely to develop a disability than be born with one.

Estimates suggest that, at present, approximately 10 – 20 million Americans are now afflicted with the array of debilitating symptoms we now call Long COVID, which include fatigue, shortness of breath, and cognitive dysfunction or “brain fog.”

The upswell of advocacy and awareness around Long COVID should be mobilized to call attention to and address the challenges faced by newly-disabled adults, particularly with respect to employment.

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Gavel and stethoscope.

Long COVID and Physical Reductionism

By Leslie Francis and Michael Ashley Stein

Like plaintiffs with other conditions lacking definitive physiological markers, long COVID plaintiffs seeking disability anti-discrimination law protections have confronted courts suspicious of their reports of symptoms and insistent on medical evidence in order for them to qualify as “disabled” and entitled to statutory protection.

We call this “physical reductionism” in disability determinations. Such physical reductionism is misguided for many reasons, including its failure to understand disability socially.

Ironically, these problems for plaintiffs may be traced to amendments to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) that were intended to expand coverage for plaintiffs claiming disability discrimination. Three provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADAAA) are appearing especially problematic for long COVID patients in the courts.

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