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Monday, June 22, 2020

COVID-19 Isn’t Just an Inconvenience for Children with Disabilities – It’s a Crisis


The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted many aspects of our youth’s daily lives, but the effects are especially acute for over 7 million U.S. children living with disabilities. While all children have had to cope with the isolation from their friends (and forced sheltering in place with their family members), adapting to online learning, and missing major milestones like prom and graduation, COVID-19 brings more than an inconvenience to physically-challenged children (and their caregivers) – it may actually threaten their safety and well-being.

One of FODAC’s pediatric clients is a 15-year-old boy confined to a wheelchair and deaf after surviving meningitis at the age of four. With a new powerchair he recently received from FODAC, Raynell is much more mobile and socially engaged and was even going to a special school combining educational learning with speech and physical therapy. Then came the coronavirus pandemic, and Georgia’s governor closed all the state’s schools, from preschool to college. While able-bodied students reluctantly moved to online learning and homeschooling to finish out the school year, Raynell’s need for special education could not be addressed at home. His deafness meant that he could not understand the virtual lessons, and the remoteness eliminated the “hands-on” aspect vital to his engagement and learning. In many of these types of situations, teachers have worked to instruct parents on how to teach their children with disabilities at home, so that these children will not fall behind in their social and educational development.

But this was a challenge for Raynell’s parents. As a teacher, Raynell’s mother, Linnis, quickly had to shift her lessons to online for all her students, making it difficult for her to suddenly take on the added responsibility of home-schooling a child-like Raynell. His father Raymond is a policeman who serves as a liaison for the Hispanic community, and as an essential community worker, he is unable to work from home like many other parents. Raynell was left in a void for his continuing education for the last half of his school year. His parents’ hope is that he can safely be back in his classroom in the fall.  If Linnis returns to the classroom for the new school year, and Raynell needs to continue his schooling at home, one parent will need to take leave time, and this would place a significant financial burden on the family.

Raynell’s regular medical appointments became another challenge during the pandemic. Most medical centers and doctor’s offices were closed except for medical emergencies, with regular in-person appointments rescheduled to phone consults. Raynell’s condition is best served with in-person examinations by his doctors. When Raynell needed a CAT scan, medical center security at first refused to allow Raymond to accompany his deaf son into the building, citing that regulations only allowed patients with appointments to come in, with no caregivers or other parties accompanying them. There was no onsite interpreter for the deaf. To no avail, his father tried to explain to the guard that he had to go in with Raynell so that he could sign to him instructions and answer questions. Only after lengthy pleading and a final demand to see a supervisor did the medical staff waive the regulation and allowed Raymond to attend the procedure with his son.

Raynell’s parents do worry about exposure to the virus for their medically-fragile son, perhaps more so than the parents of able-bodied children. They are concerned about their son’s anticipated return to school in the fall., but the school has assured parents that all precautions will be taken to ensure the safety of their students, particularly students with disabilities. Classrooms will be reformatted to allow social distancing, furniture and equipment will be regularly cleaned and sanitized, students will be instructed to wash hands often, and masks and gloves will be readily available. In addition, the special education students are in a self-contained classroom, separated from the rest of the school body and thus lessening the possibility of exposure to the virus.

No one knows what the long-term impact on the “COVID-19” generation will be, especially for children with disabilities. The pandemic has caused a rethinking and reevaluation of what was considered “normal” processes, with a necessary flexibility as we quickly changed behaviors both in business and in our personal lives. Perhaps a result of this time will be a reevaluation of how we treat those with disabilities, both in regular life and in crisis. There should be different considerations for adults and children with disabilities; rules and regulations meant for the physically-abled need to accommodate all people of every ability.

Lizbeth A. Dison is the vice president of media relations for Shiny Inc., a boutique public relations agency for niche clients with unique needs. One of its clients is Friends of Disabled Adults and Children (FODAC), which provides more than $10 million annually in refurbished home medical equipment (HME) and home modifications in Georgia and across the United States, all at little or no cost to the recipients.  For more information on FODAC, please visit fodac.org.

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