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Accessibility During COVID-19 and the Role of the Public Administrator

Part I—What Can Be Readily Accomplished?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Sean Ziller
August 25, 2020

One understandable focus during this time of global crisis has been on the long-term challenges stemming from COVID-19, particularly the effects on both minority communities and other vulnerable populations. For instance, as noted in a recent June 2020 article, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has declared that, “Urgent action is needed to address the major disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on racial and ethnic minorities…” Douglas Holtz-Eakin, economist and president of the American Action Forum think tank, elaborated on this point when he spoke to the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Ways and Means: “Racial and ethnic minorities in the United States are disproportionately feeling the health and economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic,” and, “Disparities in living environment, nutrition and education at the peak of the cycle suggest that there will be even greater impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic.” Fortunately, public health experts and policy scholars have begun to delve even further into evaluating the impact on these populations as well as other community groups, and how to appropriately respond to those unique needs. Ultimately, this critical exploration can be instructive to those within the public sector.

One group that will require additional research in order to enable public administrators to efficiently and effectively deliver public services amidst an uncertain health landscape is the physically disabled. As noted by the American Psychological Association in May 2020, prior research has demonstrated that disabled persons often struggle during pandemics at an even greater degree, due to limited access to, “Critical medical supplies which can become even more challenging as resources become scarce.”

Additionally, in the article, “How Covid-19 Impacts People With Disabilities,” the APA notes how disabled individuals can often suffer a greater degree of social isolation, experience anxiety over maintaining their medical care and reaching their traditional medical pipelines, and—in the era of COVID—remain concerned about the possibility of being placed at an even greater health risk due to any underlying conditions. The APA also points to what has been defined as medical discrimination, wherein the scarcity of medical care during national crises can, “Intensify discriminatory attitudes,” toward individuals with disabilities. This has directly fueled the actions of disability rights groups, attempting to ensure an equitable medical atmosphere while advocating for policy that encourages the growth of such an environment. This advocacy also underscores the importance of public administrators being able to continually evaluate the fair treatment and degree of accessibility within their agencies as well as across levels of government—particularly in service delivery.

As detailed by Katie Leigh Robinson in her PA TIMES Online article, “Non-Profits and Policy Change,” non-profit entities, “Have long filled in the gaps when it comes to services that the United States government is not able to provide.” This is especially noteworthy when considering the uncertainty of critical service fulfillment during national health crises. However, this view doesn’t lessen the potential impact of public officials and those working within the public sector—even in supporting vulnerable communities that reside in more remote locations.

Eliminating or adjusting traditional barriers to access would be an initial, yet monumental step in promoting equitable treatment during a pandemic such as COVID-19. With that being said, the World Health Organization has highlighted several proactive measures, and a number of universal themes, that can be acted on by governments and public officials in supporting persons with disabilities:

  • Ensuring, “Public health information and communication is accessible.”
  • Undertaking, “Targeted measures for people with disability and their support networks.”
  • Undertaking, “Targeted measure for disability service providers in the community.”
  • Increasing, “Attention given to people with disability living in high-risk situations.”
  • Ensuring, “That emergency measures include the needs of people with disability.”

Each of these themes will be explored further in Part II of this article series, but in pursuing those actionable items, it’s also imperative that one recognizes vital elements of the landmark American with Disabilities Act that prove inherently relevant here. The ADA, passed in 1990 and updated as recently as 2009, directly applies to the actions and services offered by state and local government as well as placing mandates on the processes of private business in supporting the disabled community. While the tenets of the ADA are often considered fairly static, and can apply broadly when viewed in the context of specific organization actions, emergency management best practices—outlined by DOJ Technical Assistance documents—also prove valuable when faced with the effects of a global pandemic.

The ADA, for example, advocates for ensuring advance planning; providing for proper and accessible notification to community members related to changing local or national conditions; as necessary, guaranteeing that the movement of people can be achieved so that disabled persons can still safely receive services that can’t be brought to them and verifying that programs are accessible in their current form. How these domestic requirements and global guidances can work in conjunction and complementary to one another in supporting the disabled community, while also making sure that each person in the disabled community continues to feel valued by their public service providers, will also be explored in Part II.

Author: Mr. Sean L. Ziller is a Project Senior Analyst with Conduent, Inc. in Philadelphia. He has a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science – King’s College (PA) – and a Master of Public Administration – Penn State University. All opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of his employer. He can be reached at [email protected]

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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