Managing a Physical Disability During COVID-19

For people living with a physical or developmental disability during the COVID-19 pandemic, it may be difficult or impossible to receive the care and services necessary to stay safe and healthy. Everyday challenges typically made easier by outside caregivers—like maintaining sanitary living conditions or getting from one place to another—are magnified by the necessity of physical distancing during a pandemic.

There are several things that can help mitigate the increased risk of contracting COVID-19 and maintain social inclusion in the disabled community.

A woman assists a man in a wheelchair.
Terry Vine/Getty Images

General Recommendations

The International Disability Alliance, a consortium of 14 global and regional organizations that support people with disabilities, drafted basic recommendations for an inclusive COVID-19 response in March. These 10 guidelines are intended for use at any organizational or governmental level.

  1. Persons with a disability must be given information about ways to limit infection risk in a way that is accessible to them.
  2. Additional measures must be taken to protect people with a disability or impaired physical or mental function.
  3. Proper and timely training of personnel involved in caring for the disabled is essential.
  4. All response plans must be inclusive and accessible to women with disabilities.
  5. No abandonment of the disabled is acceptable.
  6. Support services for persons with disabilities must be maintained during stay at home orders.
  7. All measures of public restrictions must consider the needs of people with disabilities. For example, if shops and restaurants are closed, the government needs to ensure those with disabilities can still get the food and medicine they need.
  8. You cannot be discriminated against for having a disability, and your health services needs cannot be deprioritized.
  9. Organizations for people with disabilities should play a key role in raising awareness of persons with disabilities.
  10. Organizations for people with disabilities should advocate for an inclusive response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Any governmental response to the COVID-19 pandemic needs to consider the specialized needs of people with disabilities.

What People With Disabilities Can Do

While the International Disability Alliance recommendations are well-intentioned, people with disabilities can't rely on their local government to ensure each measure is put into practice. Beyond standard precautions like washing your hands and wearing a facial covering, here are actionable steps different groups can take to stay safe and connected, even during isolation.

Blind People

Recognizing that blind and visually-impaired people cannot necessarily avoid tactile touch for communication or getting around, not-for-profit organization Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) offers several recommendations:

  • Use tissues, handkerchiefs, or other hand protection when using things like railings.
  • Clean assistive devices like spectacles or white canes before and after every use.
  • If you must use a guide, ensure they are following safety precautions like hand washing and wearing a mask. Try to hold their shoulder or upper arm rather than elbow or hand.

Deaf People

While VSO discusses the importance of cleaning hearing aids before entering your house after returning from outside, the major initiative from deaf organizations throughout COVID-19 has been making sure information about the pandemic is accessible.

  • The World Federation of the Deaf advocated for the World Health Organization to interpret all press conferences and video communications using International Sign.
  • The National Association of the Deaf criticized the U.S. government's failure to making COVID-19 information accessible in ASL.

People With Physical Disability

It may be impossible to isolate completely and forgo the help of an aide during the pandemic. To stay safe, VSO offers suggestions for people with physical disabilities:

  • If you have multiple caregivers, arrange specific timing to minimize contact between them.
  • Make sure any assistive devices, such as wheelchairs, are sanitized before and after leaving your home.
  • Avoid using railings or other supportive grips. Use a tissue or handkerchief if you must touch them.
  • If you take prescription medication, try to make sure you have a four-week supply of your medicine on hand to guard against any possible disruption in the medicine supply chain. You may need to speak with your physician about altering your prescriptions to ensure that you have enough supply available.

As a disabled person, you may require the help and services of a healthcare professional to help meet your needs. Anyone who you come into contact with should be wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) including a face mask and eye shield. You should also be prepared with your own PPE to prevent the spread of the virus.

What Caregivers Can Do

Caregivers should follow precautions from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to keep themselves healthy:

  • Wash hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, or use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a facial covering
  • Cover coughs and sneezes
  • Clean and disinfect high-touch surfaces

When physical distancing is not possible, caregivers should make sure that, when coming from the outside or a public place, they do not interact with the person with a disability until they've washed their hands. It's also important for caregivers to make sure the person with a disability also maintains self-hygiene.

Stay Connected

Whether you're a caregiver, family member, or friend of a person with a disability, it's a good idea to check in frequently with them to ensure that they remain safe. Inquire about their needs—both physical and emotional—and watch for signs of depression due to isolation, like:

  • Low energy
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Dependence on alcohol or drugs
  • Changes in sleep
  • Physical pain or body aches

What Employers Can Do

The International Labour Organization suggests several tactics for employers to support and include people with disabilities throughout their COVID-19 response:

  1. Make sure company communication is accessible and inclusive of people with disabilities. This means using sign language, subtitles, and accessible websites. It also means taking the time to address individual situations.
  2. Cover any extra working costs related to disability.
  3. Make sure people with disabilities are involved in COVID-19 response plans.

A Word From Verywell

Connection can be challenging for people with a disability during ordinary times and may be exacerbated during the pandemic. By having a plan, recognizing barriers, and reaching out to others, you can maintain some level of normalcy during this unprecedented time.

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. Murray J. Letter to WHO about the COVID-19 information. World Federation of the Deaf. March 23, 2020.

  2. A Message from the NAD About Coronavirus (COVID-19) [Video]. YouTube. March 12, 2020.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19): How to Protect Yourselves & Others. April 24, 2020.

  4. International Labour Organization. Five ways to include persons with disabilities in COVID-19 responses. April 22, 2020.

Additional Reading

By Brett Sears, PT
Brett Sears, PT, MDT, is a physical therapist with over 20 years of experience in orthopedic and hospital-based therapy.