Disability in the Time of COVID-19: Unheard Voices, Unseen Struggles—and Unknown Rights

Disability in the Time of COVID-19: Unheard Voices, Unseen Struggles—and Unknown Rights

Disability attorney Afnan Akram gives insight on how the COVID-19 pandemic has increased discrimination against this protected group and how we still underestimate the broadness of disability rights.

An elderly man is hospitalized with heatstroke after his landlord shut off his electricity in an attempt to evict him after he tested positive for COVID-19. 

The mother of an immune-compromised child cries herself to sleep at night, overcome by the stress of maintenance workers entering her home without wearing masks.

A healthcare worker who tested positive for COVID-19 yells in frustration because he is unable to quarantine while his landlord shows the house to prospective tenants.

A teacher is harassed by her neighbors upon leaving her house because she’s been teaching in-person and they fear she might have COVID-19.

What do all of these situations have in common? They are everyday situations people are facing in our communities. And so often, in voicing their daily struggles, they go unheard. But what so many do not realize is that they actually have the right to seek help in situations that impact their disabilities.

The term “disability” is very broad and includes many people living with diagnoses that come under the Fair Housing Act (FHA), a seminal piece of civil rights legislation passed in 1968. This prohibits discrimination in housing on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status, and disability. “Disability” is defined as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities…a record of such an impairment, or being regarded as having such an impairment.”

While this includes commonly known impairments such as blindness, hearing loss, or mobility impairments, it also includes health conditions that require medication such as diabetes, heart problems, weakened immune systems and chronic pain. Additionally, mental and emotional conditions such as anxiety, depression, ADHD, and anything else that impacts a person’s ability to live and enjoy life.

Image courtesy of DCR

A person that lives in a second-story apartment and uses a wheelchair can request that the out-of-order elevator in the building be repaired immediately so they are not trapped in their home. If a child with a mental or emotional condition is being loud and elicits noise complaints, the parents can explain to their landlord that the child has disabilities and they are working with the child on the behaviors.

Such requests to landlords are called “reasonable accommodations.” These are changes to policies and practices that may be necessary to ensure that a person with disabilities has housing. Requests for reasonable accommodation should always be made to the landlord or homeowners association in writing.

Image courtesy of World Health Organization (WHO)

Since the onset of the current pandemic, there has been a rise in housing cases involving people who have COVID-19, are immunocompromised, and/or those whose stress and anxiety are worsened as a result of it. In the examples initially set out, each person has rights that cannot be violated. The elderly man cannot be harassed or evicted from his home simply for having COVID-19. If symptoms of COVID-19 impact a person’s life activities such as breathing, sleeping and eating, that person is protected under the FHA. Furthermore, landlords must follow proper legal proceedings to evict tenants and require court rulings.

The mother of the immunocompromised child and the healthcare worker can submit written requests for reasonable accommodations to their landlords requiring essential maintenance workers to wear proper PPE and to lower non-essential risks. Anxiety and stress that negatively impacts one’s daily life activities is a disability protected under the FHA.

Image courtesy of i.ytimgFinally, the teacher harassed by neighbors who believe she has COVID-19 is also protected under the FHA which prohibits discrimination against people perceived to have a disability. The teacher should inform her landlord or homeowners’ association of the situation, who must act and prevent harassment.

Fortunately, there are agencies to support such rights. Sometimes people need support because the landlord denies or ignores their requests and complaints or the landlord is overtly violating their rights because of a known or perceived disability. Each state has a nonprofit, federally designated, legal protection and advocacy organization that may be able to help. Importantly, the legal advice is at no cost.

Image courtesy of NCCDD


For anyone with disabilities suffering from housing concerns, employment problems, require education accommodations or any other issue that presents a difficulty, you do not need to suffer in silence—there is support that can significantly improve the quality of your life.

Click here to find a protection and advocacy organization in your state.

Click here to find a legal aid provider in your area.

Afnan Akram is a civil rights attorney. She graduated from the SMU Dedman School of Law in 2019 and is currently working at Disability Rights Texas.

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