COVID-19, Higher Education and Disability – a series of four blogs on lessons to be learned from the current crisis, Disability Studies, and disabled people.


The yawning chasm between the ‘have’s’ and the ‘have nots’ has perhaps been most clearly exposed in the gulf between reactions to the hospitalisation of Boris Johnson, and the slow and less dramatic reporting of the disproportionate amount of people from BAME communities, including many health workers, who have died from the virus, or have been admitted to ITUs in the UK (Butcher and Massey, 2020). While it is unclear how these map onto existing health inequalities, given the relative paucity of research on ethnicity and health (Khan, 2020), it is clear that power elites have proactively sought to counter ugly and overwhelming evidence of the brutal inequalities of neoliberal governance by launching pre-emptive warnings to those who are most marginalised. Although there has been some recent recognition of structural/material factors which has led to a recognition of the need for precautions, in the UK and elsewhere (see Cookson and Milne, 2020, for example), such ideological instructions have usually been thinly disguised in discourses of benevolence or individualism; for example, the US Surgeon General’s invocation to Black and Latino Americans to avoid alcohol, tobacco and drugs[i] .  However, there is ample evidence from research on racial inequalities, class, gender, and age, that people in these categories will be over-exposed to risk of COVID-19 by virtue of their place in society, being less well-equipped to manage important matters of income, nutrition and physical and emotional wellbeing. Many are likely to have to quarantine themselves without food. It has been estimated that 1.5 people million go a day without food in the UK during the COVID crisis, so far (Lawrence, 2020).  Hidden in plain sight, or less visible to those who aren’t looking, those with impairments (disabled people) and long term illnesses are faced with rapidly escalating health risks, shrinking access to basic resources including personal care, Personal Protective Equipment[ii] (PPE) and food, and an assault on, or reversal of, their hard-won ‘rights’[iii] . Specifically, under the Coronavirus Act 2020, the duties of local authorities to assess and meet the needs of disabled people have been downgraded to powers, effectively putting at risk the availability of essential personal assistance.

Noticing the lives of ‘others’ during a pandemic

One might expect the anxiety of getting, avoiding, or even thinking about the horrors of dying of COVID-19 would generate better recognition and understanding of aspects of ableism and disablism hitherto beyond the experience and notice of those who do not live with disability, impairment and/or illness. All of us seem to have shared feelings of fear, grief, panic and despair which could allow a reconsideration of previous beliefs in invulnerability/normality. The thought of a lonely death, and/or agonising levels of pain experienced amongst an over-worked team of health professionals is likely to force many of us into an abrupt realisation of the fragility of our own lives. Further, the denial of life-saving treatment, as documented by some of those families who have been or may be affected[iv] , raises questions for most of us about the value which would be placed on our own lives. Moreover, the common experience of social distancing may have woken many of us up to interdependencies between us which are so often denied.

We might possibly be reminded how we have shunned our responsibilities to ensure those who provide the basic necessities for our survival receive appropriate levels of reward and/or care: the cleaners who clean our offices; the ‘foreigners’ who pick our fruit; the barbarism inflicted on animals merely to provide products which end up on most of our plates or in our coffee[v].  As patterns of infection and mortality have become more discernible, we might even have begun to understand how illness, disability and death intersect with issues of class, ethnicity and gender, or why so many of us are relegated to marginal positions within the employment market and have little choice in facing the conditions of poverty.

Read next in the series>


Butcher and Massey (2020) Are minorities being hit hardest by coronavirus?,  in BBC News 9 April 2020, [Accessed 10 April 2020)

Cookson, C and Milne, R (2020) Nations look into  why coronavirus hits ethnic minorities so hard, in Financial Times, 19 April 2020 [Accessed 30 April 2020]

Khan, A (2020) Third of critically ill COVID-19 UK patients from BME backgrounds, in Al Jazeera, 7 April 2020 [Accessed 10 April 2020]

Lawrence, F (2020) UK hunger crisis: 1.5m people go whole day without food, in The Guardian, 11 April 2020 [Accessed 11 April, 2020]

Merryfield, J (2020) COVID-19 is nature’s revenge, in Sierra Sun, 7 April 2020 [Accessed 12 April 2020]

Pring, J (2020) Coronavirus: Government has abandoned disabled people on direct payments, in Disability News Service, 19 March 2020 [Accessed 20 April 2020]

Raval, P (2020) Whose life to save? Investigating the ‘do not resuscitate’ coronavirus controversy, in The Bristol Cable, 10 April 2020 [Accessed 13 April 2020]


[i] Broadcast from the White House by CBS news. [Accessed 11 April 2020]

[ii] The requirement for social distancing has created problems for many disabled people who rely on the em-ployment of personal assistants for daily tasks which most of us take for granted, e.g. getting out of bed, person-al care and feeding. This usually involves a number of assistants who are likely to have to come and go, creating greater risks for all concerned. As a consequence, some disabled have lost their assistance, while  most have been left with little or no PPE. Pring (2020) accused the government of ‘abandonment’, and their failure to plan for disabled people and their assistants

[iii] See the statement on COVId-19 and the rights of disabled people [Accessed 22 April, 2020]

[iv] There have been several reports on twitter, and elsewhere, from families who have claimed that their family member with COVID-19 was denied such treatment, and several reports  that GPs were requesting some of their patients (older people or those with pre-existing medical conditions) to sign DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) forms in case they become infected, e.g. see Raval (2020).

[v] Indeed, it is understandable that some would be highlighting our anthropocentric abuses of animals, as causes of this and other recent infectious diseases, such as Swine Flu, Bird Flu and ebola. Merryfield, for example, has written (of COVID-19): ‘It’s almost as if nature, and the animals themselves are holding up a protest sign, arms extended overhead, marching down main street, saying ENOUGH IS ENOUGH’ (Merryfield, 2020)

Dr Sara Ryan is a Senior Research Lead at the University of Oxford. A sociologist and activist, her work focuses on learning disability, autism and social justice.  Twitter: @sarasiobhan

Dr Alison Wilde is an Independent Researcher and a Tutor for UNICAF. Her work focuses on disability, inclusion, social justice, and culture. She is series editor for ‘Disability, Media, Culture’ with Peter Lang. Twitter: @aliswilde

Dr Sarah Woodin is an Independent Researcher and Senior Research Fellow at the University of Leeds. As an interdisciplinary social scientist her work is concerned with disability equality and social change. Twitter: @sarahwoodin