Outbreak Sparks Fear of Health Care Rationing for Disabled

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by Paul Murano  •  ChurchMilitant.com  •  March 27, 2020   

Disability rights advocate Emily Ladau sees the writing on the wall

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DETROIT (ChurchMilitant.com) - Wheelchair-bound Emily Ladau fears that she and those like her will be the first to be denied care if the viral pandemic continues to spread.

Ladau, who from the age of 10 has been speaking about disability rights and social justice, attests to being the target of negative attitudes from the larger community that question her worth as a human being. 

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Emily Ladau

"As a physically disabled woman who uses a wheelchair," she says, "it's pretty commonplace for me to run into reminders that society deems my life and the lives of people in my community less valuable than those of nondisabled people," she claims. "These reminders have built up over my lifetime like a thousand little cuts that never heal."

Ladau is increasingly worried by the outbreak: 

The other night, I found myself still wide awake in the early morning hours, trying to slow the rhythm of my breathing. I'd just read yet another article on the ethical dilemma of rationing health care in the face of the ever-growing coronavirus pandemic. I was terrified. I finally drifted off to sleep, only to have a nightmare that I was in a locked ward with hundreds of other disabled people who had all been left to wait out the effects of the illness without any medical intervention. At the very least, this was a sign that I needed to stop scrolling through social media before bed. But even if it was just a bad dream, it felt a little too close to our looming reality for comfort.

None of this is unfamiliar to Ladau, owing to her real-life experience. 

"I feel the familiar sting of being seen as unworthy every time I try to find a spot for my wheelchair at an event, only to be told that I have to move because I'm presenting a fire hazard," she laments. "Never mind that I'm a human being sitting on those wheels that are taking up space. If there's an emergency, it doesn't matter that I need to get out quickly like everyone else — I'm just in the way."

Recalling her past experiences with elevators and fire drills, she says "I feel the sting of unworthiness" every time I take an elevator and there's a sign staring me in the face that says, 'In case of emergency, take stairs.' It might as well read, 'In case of emergency, you're trapped.'"

In one fell swoop, this terse, cold guideline could eliminate my life and the lives of so many people I love who have disabilities and chronic illnesses.

Feeling "in the way" is nothing she takes lightly, especially in the midst of a crisis pandemic that has already left people dead due to the lack of available resources. "As the coronavirus continues to spread," she says, "deciding who to save is no longer a hypothetical exercise in a medical ethics textbook. It's very real in regions such as Italy, and it's becoming increasingly likely in the United States," Ladau warns.

Ladau's anxiety rises in part from secular media reports that lead her to feel that, in these critical times, her life and many of her friends' lives may become expendable:

According to a New York Times article published Saturday, guidance endorsed and distributed by the Washington State Health Department ... suggested that triage teams under crisis conditions should consider transferring patients out of the hospital or to palliative care if their baseline functioning was "marked by loss of reserves in energy, physical ability, cognition and general health." In one fell swoop, this terse, cold guideline could eliminate my life and the lives of so many people I love who have disabilities and chronic illnesses. 

"Truth be told, though, this is always how it's been for disabled people," she laments.

Likewise, a National Public Radio (NPR) article she read fueled concern about a "slippery slope." 

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"NPR noted that 'social usefulness' is also a potential factor that might determine who lives and who dies if health care rationing becomes necessary in the United States," she notes. "This line of thinking can quickly go beyond protecting people on the front lines and become a slippery slope leading toward judgments on the lives of disabled people."

Claiming the disability community is constantly pressured to prove themselves worthy, she states, "We're stuck in a vicious cycle of being pushed to prove ourselves in a world that places every possible disadvantage before us."

The current crisis leads Ladau to reflect on the utilitarian society of the West and its related ethical standards.

Truth be told, though, this is always how it's been for disabled people.

"Chillingly, this pandemic is bringing into sharp focus the fact that millions of disabled people on this planet have always lived in the position of being one crisis away from those with power determining their lives are not worth saving," she says. "Everything I read about medical facilities grappling with what to do if they reach capacity seems to make clear what disabled people have recognized all along: We're all too often seen as the clutter in the way of cleaning up the world."

Living in a society that kills approximately eight in 10 disabled children prenatally who have abnormalities like Down syndrome, Ladau's sensitivity is not unfounded. "In times of crisis, it's all too easy to throw out the notion that every life has inherent worth," she says.

There are more than 1 billion disabled people around the world, Ladau reminds us. "We are human beings, calling on those in power to reassess the ways we value and care for others. We are calling on everyone to recognize that disabled lives are worth living."

Section 2258 of The Catechism of the Catholic Church also reminds us that all "Human life is sacred because from its beginning, it involves the creative action of God, and it remains forever in a special relationship with the Creator, who is its sole end." This, she emphasizes, includes all people, regardless of their physical or mental imperfections.

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