New obstacles and widening gaps: A qualitative study of the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on U.S. adults with disabilities

Sabrina Epstein, Jessica Campanile, Caroline Cerilli, Prateek Gajwani, Varshini Varadaraj, Bonnielin K. Swenor

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background: Prior research has demonstrated that the needs of the disability community have not been met during public health emergencies. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated existing inequities for many populations including people with disabilities, and data is needed to develop inclusive public health response policies. Objective: To identify how COVID-19 has uniquely impacted the lives of adults with disabilities. Methods: 38 participants were recruited through disability advocacy groups and social media. Semi-structured virtual focus groups were conducted with adults (≥18 years) who self-identified as having a disability. Focus groups were conducted for each of six disability sub-groups: vision, hearing, mobility and physical, mental health, cognitive, intellectual, and developmental, and chronic illness. Using inductive coding, major themes were identified and compared across the disability sub-groups. Results: Three major themes and thirteen sub-themes were identified from the focus groups. The three major themes comprised: new problems created by the pandemic, obstacles in daily life that were exacerbated by the pandemic, and broader changes to accessibility and disability identity. Sub-themes such as difficulty with COVID-19 testing and regular medical care were reported by participants of all disability sub-groups, while other sub-themes like direct care needs and medical rationing were reported by participants from a subset of the disability sub-groups. Conclusions: These results indicate how the COVID-19 pandemic unequally impacts disabled people. The participants indicated that to fully address their needs, disability perspectives must be included in the public health pandemic response. As new research shows that COVID-19 can cause long-term disability, the urgency to ensure the disability community is part of public health policies will increase.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number101103
JournalDisability and Health Journal
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jul 2021


  • COVID-19
  • Disability equity
  • Disability health
  • Emergency response
  • Qualitative

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health


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