Op-Ed: It’s Unacceptable That Disabled People Still Can’t Access COVID Vaccines

A white nurse administering a vaccine to a black man.

Marko Geber / Getty Images

Rachel Charlton-Dailey is a journalist specializing in chronic conditions and disability. Her work is featured in publications such as Healthline, Huffpost, Metro UK, The Guardian, and Business Insider. Charlton-Dailey often uses her platform to spotlight issues that affect disabled people. Here, she shares the struggles many disabled people face when seeking COVID vaccination.

Earlier this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released data showing that disabled people were less likely to be vaccinated than non-disabled people. 

The CDC surveyed nearly 57,000 people who lived outside of nursing homes and other care institutions. Among 50 to 64-year-olds, 63% of disabled people had gotten COVID-19 vaccines, compared with 72% of non-disabled people. For people older than 75, the gap was much smaller but still there: 88% of disabled people were vaccinated, compared with 90% of people without a disability.

“COVID-19 vaccination coverage was lower among U.S. adults with a disability than among those without a disability, even though adults with a disability reported less hesitancy to get vaccinated,” the study’s authors wrote.

A lack of access to appointments and vaccination centers is keeping many disabled people from receiving their COVID-19 vaccines.

Barriers to Navigating Appointments

The survey found that disabled people anticipated or had already experienced serious difficulty in getting a vaccine. 

The CDC says that much has been done to help keep disabled people in the loop—including adapting COVID-19 health messages into more accessible formats. But it hasn't been enough. more action is needed to help disabled people get vaccinated.

Although registration websites are required to be accessible, that doesn’t mean they adequately are. An exploratory study of 54 official COVID-19 vaccine registration websites found that they showed suboptimal compliance with web accessibility guidelines. This may pose difficulties for disabled users in accessing the information they need about vaccination. 

“These efforts would be relevant to the reduction of health disparities related to a disability beyond the COVID-19 pandemic,” the study authors wrote.

The CDC survey also noted that they recently provided funding to the Administration for Community Living (ACL) to create a national Disability Information and Access Line (DIAL) which disabled people can call to gain assistance in getting a COVID vaccine. While this is a step in the right direction, it won't cover all bases. This line will only be available to disabled people who can use a phone.

Challenges in Accessing Vaccination Sites

Even if a disabled person manages to secure an appointment at a location near them, navigating vaccination sites can pose an issue.

All vaccination sites are required to be compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. However, while it's recommended, sites are still not required to have American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters. They also don’t need to have vaccination providers who have experience working with intellectually disabled people. 

Having to stand in long queues, struggling with transportation, or even getting into the vaccination center itself can all be challenging as well. Many centers still aren’t listing how accessible they are on their websites. While it’s become easier to schedule appointments, knowing what to expect from a center is equally as crucial.

The Problem Persists

Denying disabled people a life-saving vaccine by not giving them the proper access to it is medical ableism.

However, this isn’t a new problem. These issues surrounding access have existed since the vaccines first started rolling out last December. There have been little signs of improvement since February. 

It would be a mistake to place the blame on disabled people in this situation. Some disabled people still can't get vaccinated, but not out of their own choice. The survey found that among unvaccinated adults, disabled people were more likely to support the vaccines as protection against the virus.

When we put the blame on disabled people who are still trying and struggling to protect themselves instead of the institutions that are failing them, we shift accountability onto the wrong people. Many disabled and vulnerable people want to get vaccinated, they are just struggling to do so.

Reducing barriers around scheduling and making vaccination sites more accessible would likely be a game-changer for disabled people.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Ryerson A, Rice C, Hung M et al. Disparities in COVID-19 Vaccination Status, Intent, and Perceived Access for Noninstitutionalized Adults, by Disability Status — National Immunization Survey Adult COVID Module, United States, May 30–June 26, 2021. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 2021;70(39):1365-1371. doi:10.15585/mmwr.mm7039a2

  2. Alismail S, Chipidza W. Accessibility evaluation of COVID-19 vaccine registration websites across the United States. Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association. 2021;28(9):1990-1995. doi:10.1093/jamia/ocab105

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Guidance for Vaccinating Older Adults and People with Disabilities: Ensuring Equitable COVID-19 Vaccine Access.

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Talking to Patients with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities about COVID-19 Vaccination.

By Rachel Charlton-Dailey
Rachel Charlton-Dailey (she/they) is a health and disability journalist. They serve as editor-in-chief of The Unwritten, a platform for the stories of disabled people. Their work features in publications such as Healthline, Huffpost, Metro UK, The Guardian, and Business Insider.