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Practice Justice

Two Years and Counting: COVID and the Disabilities Community

An open letter from a disabled Christian to the church
by Jennifer Justice | July 5, 2022

Many people in our churches have the privilege of not understanding just how traumatic these past two years have been for the disabilities community.

Let me elaborate just a little. A significant portion of the disabilities community are high-risk when it comes to COVID. We are the ones the CDC talks about when they discuss increased chances of hospitalization and death. For the past two years, we skipped family gatherings and parties and vacations while other people posted pictures. 

While some of you might feel COVID is no longer a major concern thanks to any number of factors, plenty of us do not have that luxury. Many in the disabilities community are still high-risk, still taking precautions, still watching as everyone else goes back to doing whatever they were doing pre-COVID. 

But the disabilities community cannot afford to go back to what they were doing. We are being left behind once more. We are not ready to return to in-person services or activities. It is not safe for us, and based on what happened the past two years, we do not feel that we are welcome anymore. COVID has been traumatic on so many levels, and the church contributed to that trauma. It is important to acknowledge that fact so that everyone can begin to work towards a solution.

A Two-Year Battle

One thing to keep in mind is that the people around us directly contributed to the problems and trauma faced by the disabilities community. For those who followed safety measures, wore a mask, got vaccinated, and made other efforts, I extend a sincere thank you. 

If all of us had worn masks from the beginning to keep everyone safe, the disabilities community would be in a much better place now. But that didn’t happen. COVID became so tied to politics that it was almost impossible to discuss safety measures without it devolving into a fight. High-risk communities were caught in the middle of all that mess.

There were dozens of news stories about people attacking store clerks for trying to enforce a legally required mask mandate, more stories about super spreader events at church services, and people refusing to get vaccinated or follow safety measures. There were protests over the lockdowns, people blocking entrances to hospitals, and others demanding to go to the beauty salon.

From the disabilities community perspective, we saw the people around us put haircuts and politics and their comfort ahead of public safety and our lives. The disabilities community got to watch while far too many people around us proved how little they cared. Some of the loudest protests against safety measures came from individuals within the church

Don’t think the disabilities community didn’t notice.

If that sounds harsh, it’s not as harsh as living that reality. In my own experience, as well as multiple friends, the ones who verbally attacked me over and over again for trying to keep myself alive were people claiming to be Christians. They were the ones who argued with me for wearing a mask, who said I shouldn’t get vaccinated, who were proud and loud about flaunting public safety measures. They tried to equate wearing a mask and online church services with real persecution, claiming that safety measures were the same trials faced by individuals being jailed, tortured, and killed for being a believer in other countries. While I and so many others were trying to stay alive, the people usually working against us were the ones talking about God.

That should make you pause. 

Instead of the church as a whole supporting those who were the most vulnerable and trying to minimize the fallout, far too many individuals within the church have actively damaged the disabilities community and other vulnerable populations for the past two years.

The disabilities community has been harmed in many ways by COVID, and some of that harm came directly from individuals within the church. That is our reality.

A Long-term Battle

Unfortunately, COVID is an ongoing nightmare. COVID has not gone away, and neither has our high-risk status. The CDC estimates that 1 in 4 Americans have some form of disability (“Disability Impacts All of Us”). The next time you sit in a pew or chair during service and look around, that means you are probably an arm’s length away from someone who falls under the high-risk category. People in the high-risk category often have an invisible (or hidden) disability – you cannot tell by looking at us that we have a disability.

The CDC has not changed safety recommendations for high-risk people. We still need to avoid crowds, wear masks, and isolate. Places like churches are less than ideal. Dozens of super spreader events were linked to churches early on. The same factors that caused high infection rates are back with the relaxing of safety measures. You may be happy to be back to in-person services, but many in the disabilities community are still under the same restrictions from two years ago. 

And based on what we saw from the people around us, we feel neither safe nor welcome to come back. One thing that should not be underestimated is just how much we now feel discouraged by our experiences within the church. It’s difficult to forget that individuals within the church flaunted safety measures from the start, especially since those people were often so vocal about it. To say that some openly bragged about ignoring safety concerns would not be an exaggeration. Church leaders sometimes led efforts to stop others from wearing masks, even when it was legally required by the state.

Our efforts to stay safe were undermined by people claiming to be our brothers and sisters in God. The church needs to recognize just how much harm has been done to the disabilities community by some of its members. Reconciliation is possible, but it takes acknowledging the problem in the first place. The road forward is a bit bumpy, but it’s there.

So…. Now What?

COVID as an ongoing problem needs to be addressed on behalf of the disabilities community. There are so many steps that can be taken:

  • Acknowledge that COVID is especially problematic for high-risk groups, such as the disabilities community.
  • Recognize that many high-risk people feel traumatized by the past two years and treat it as the trauma it is.
  • Realize that many high-risk people feel a sense of betrayal from members within the church community because of refusals to comply with safety measures. The church can help everyone move forward by acknowledging this sense of betrayal and taking steps towards reconciliation.
  • Be aware that COVID is still a significant risk for many people in the disabilities community, and that you play a role in safety measures that could keep someone alive.
  • The need for online options has not gone away for high-risk individuals. We still need access to alternatives for in-person activities, such as recordings of services or allowing people to join Bible study groups through Zoom.
  • Avoid criticizing or challenging someone who is wearing a mask or practicing other safety measures. Better still, offer to put on a mask when you are around them. Show your support and concern for them.
  • Realize that many high-risk individuals have been closely watching the behavior of the people around them, partially out of a sense of self-preservation. Your actions regarding safety measures were probably noticed by someone, whether they said something or not.
About the Author

Jennifer Justice

Jennifer Justice, Ph. D., is a professor of English. She grew up in Iowa, and has since spent the past 15+ years experiencing life in other states in the Midwest.

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