Disability with technology line icon set.

Reflecting on the Struggle for Disability Rights a Year into the Pandemic

By Amalia Sweet

On March 9, the Petrie-Flom Center and Harvard Law School Project on Disability gathered a panel to discuss the extent to which the pandemic has set back progress toward ensuring the rights of persons with disabilities.

Though calls for solidarity in March 2020 declared the emerging pandemic to be a “great equalizer,” the past 12 months have demonstrated how the pandemic has exacerbated existing social inequalities, disproportionately impacting the already marginalized.

The panel discussion, hosted by Petrie-Flom Center Senior Fellow in Global Health and Rights Alicia Ely Yamin and moderated by Harvard Law School Project on Disability Executive Director Michael Ashley Stein, provided voice to the uniquely and acutely devastating impacts of the pandemic on persons with disabilities, who are still struggling to secure protection of their basic rights.

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hospital equipment

Balancing Health Care Rationing and Disability Rights in a Pandemic

By Yolanda Bustillo and Rachel Perler

Amid the present surge of the coronavirus pandemic, it is crucial that disability rights are a factor in the development of triage protocols.

During the last week of December, the CDC recorded a record of 225,269 new coronavirus cases and 118,948 total hospitalizations. Health care systems across the country have predicted that they soon may face shortages of ventilators, personal protective equipment (PPE), and other limited resources.

In Utah, for example, hospital administrators have implemented informal triage protocols that prioritize patients based on health status, clinical factors, and the time sensitivity of their needed procedures. Hospitals in California have similarly begun rationing care.

If these dire circumstances worsen, hospital systems may apply triage protocols that deviate from best practices and impermissibly discriminate against people with disabilities.

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Oxygen mask as part of artificial lungs ventilation machine in surgery room, closeup.

Arizona’s Crisis Standards of Care and Fair Allocation of Resources During COVID-19

By Govind Persad

As COVID-19 cases spiked in Arizona, the state activated its crisis standards of care, which provide triage guidelines if absolute scarcity arises.

Arizona has done the right thing by adopting crisis standards of care instead of leaving these decisions about ventilators to be made ad hoc by medical staff, which presents the risk both of arbitrary and biased decisions and of greater distress for clinical staff who are forced to make decisions without a guidance framework.

Arizona’s activation of its crisis standards of care stands in contrast to most other states’ response to the pandemic, including New York, which ultimately did not activate its crisis standards of care. Even though Arizona and other states have not yet reached the stage of absolute scarcity where triage policies are invoked—and hopefully will take steps to avoid reaching it—the move has prompted discussions about fair triage policies and criticisms from some community organizations.

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hospital equipment

How Triage During COVID-19 Can be Fair to Patients with Disabilities

By Govind Persad

On March 28, 2020, the Department of Health and Human Services issued guidance regarding the application of antidiscrimination law to triage policies — that is, policies for fairly allocating scarce medical treatments, like ventilators, in the COVID-19 pandemic.

Many news outlets incorrectly portrayed HHS as prohibiting triage guidelines from considering disability. But the guidance is more nuanced.

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Group of people of various ages and ethnicities sitting in a circle talking. At least one of the people is in a wheelchair.

Rethinking Inclusivity in Precision Medicine Research: The Disability Experience and Barriers to Participation

By Maya Sabatello and Paul S. Appelbaum

One of the most important aspects of precision medicine research is its focus on inclusion of diverse groups. The reality is that without cohort diversity, it will be impossible for precision medicine research to deliver on its promise to provide prevention and therapeutic options that are tailored to each individual’s genetic makeup, environment, and lifestyle choices across diverse groups. And, as the scientific community, including the national All of Us Research Program, increasingly has come to realize, for precision medicine to reduce—rather than magnify—health disparities, it is critical to ensure that historically marginalized communities are included in this research endeavor. Read More

Exploring the Brain in Pain: An Applied Neuroscience & Law Initiative

Amanda C. Pustilnik

I am excited to join the Petrie-Flom Center as the first Senior Fellow in Law & Applied Neuroscience. This fellowship is the product of an innovative partnership between the Petrie-Flom Center and the Center for Law, Brain and Behavior (CLBB) at Massachusetts General Hospital. This partnership aims to translate developments in neuroscience into legal applications, remaining sensitive to the normative dimensions of many – if not all – legal questions. The field of law & neuroscience is large and growing, addressing questions that intersect with nearly every area of law and a huge range of social and human concerns. CLBB is bringing together scientists, bioethicists, and legal scholars to look at questions ranging from criminal responsibility and addiction, to mind-reading and brain-based lie detection, to how the brain’s changes over our lifecourse affect our capacities to make decisions.

In the first year of this joint venture, we will be focusing on a set of issues with potentially huge implications for the law: The problem of pain. Pain is pervasive in law, from tort to torture, from ERISA to expert evidence. Pain and suffering damages in tort add up to billions of dollars per year; disability benefits, often awarded to people who suffer or claim to have chronic pain, amount to over one hundred billion annually. Yet legal doctrines and decision-makers often understand pain poorly, relying on concepts that are out of date and that can cast suspicion on pain sufferers as having a problem that is “all in their heads.”

Now, brain imaging technologies are allowing scientists to see the brain in pain – and to reconceive of many types of pain as diseases of the central nervous system. Brain imaging shows that, in many cases, the problem is literally in sufferers’ heads: Long-term pain changes the structure and function of the brain, perpetuating non-adaptive pain and interfering with cognitive and emotional function. Read More