Disability Rights During COVID-19

Eve HillBy Eve Hill

Over the past month, the COVID-19 pandemic has transformed the ways in which we live and work. As federal, state, and local officials rush to implement new measures designed to safeguard public health, it is critical that they also protect the rights of disabled individuals—as required by laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”).

The lawyers at Brown, Goldstein & Levy are investigating ADA claims that stem from responses to the coronavirus pandemic, including in the areas of voting rights and access to medical care.

Voting During COVID

Over the coming weeks and months, many states will hold elections; Maryland, for instance, is holding a special election to fill a vacant seat in the House of Representatives today (April 28), followed by a residential and municipal primary on June 2.

Although many states are encouraging voters to cast their ballots by mail to promote physical distancing, paper mail-in ballots often frustrate the ability of blind and other individuals with disabilities to vote independently and privately.

The secrecy of the ballot is considered sacrosanct in the United States. Having someone read a paper ballot to you and hoping that person chooses the candidate you have directed is a risk that many blind people are hesitant to take.

Accessibility for Online Voting

Although some states offer online voting, that too can be problematic. First, to be usable by blind people, such online voting systems must be accessible. Although the ADA requires accessibility, in practice it is often overlooked.

Second, even accessible online voting will not allow people who do not have computers to vote. And any online system that requires voters to print the online ballot, sign it, and mail it will exclude people who have a computer but no printer.

For these reasons, online voting may not be an effective replacement for accessible voting equipment (including audio ballots and touch screens with enlarged texts) available at in-person voting locations. Indeed, although Maryland has an accessible online absentee voting system, Maryland officials have said disabled voters have a right to vote in-person on election day, and Maryland has opened three in-person voting locations for the special election today.

Voting Locations and Ballots

Nevada plaintiffs are challenging a decision to open only one polling location per county for its June 9 primary. As states across the country move toward mail-in-only voting, the lawyers at Brown, Goldstein & Levy will be working with the National Federation of the Blind and other disability organizations to ensure people with disabilities can cast their ballots privately and independently.

Telemedicine Providing Accessibility

Advocates at Brown, Goldstein & Levy also are investigating discrimination claims arising from the provision of medical care. As the federal government underscored in a March 28 bulletin, even amidst a global pandemic, health care providers must not neglect their legal obligation to provide effective communication with deaf or blind individuals.

As telemedicine—whether by video, telephone, or email—becomes more prevalent, it must be equally accessible to individuals with disabilities. People with disabilities should not be required to visit their healthcare providers in person, risking COVID-19 infection unnecessarily.

In addition, communications regarding emergency preparation and response, including economic emergency benefits, must be accessible to all. The lawyers at BGL are following the reports of accessibility issues with telemedicine platforms, as well as with state unemployment compensation websites, public benefits applications, and live-streamed government hearings. As this coronavirus crisis unfolds over the coming months, the attorneys at Brown, Goldstein & Levy are here to assist with any concerns you may have, including with respect to voting restrictions and unequal medical care. Please contact us at 410-962-1030 or info@browngold.com so we can discuss whether and how we may be able to assist.

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Authored by

Eve Hill Partner