Disability advocates voice concern over vaccination distribution

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Matt Gibson/Staff
With new vaccination criteria in California for individuals with underlying health conditions, disability advocates voice concerns.

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As California ramps up vaccination efforts, the state’s department of public health will open vaccination distribution to individuals ages 16 to 64 with underlying health conditions March 15. With the new criteria, disability advocates voiced concerns over exclusion and lack of communication.

While UC Berkeley’s University Health Services, or UHS, needs to follow state and UC Office of the President policies in the next phase of vaccination distribution, according to campus spokesperson Janet Gilmore, they will invite disabled students to self-identify for vaccine eligibility in accordance with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, guidelines.

UHS is not planning to require documentation as proof of an underlying condition and campus administration will instead communicate the expectation that the campus community will act socially responsible. Auditing for fraud will be a “last resort,” according to Gilmore.

“When something involves disabled people and a benefit, we as a society too often move quickly to the question of ‘fraud,’ ” said Ella Callow, campus Americans with Disabilities Act/Section 504 compliance officer, in an email. “It may be a direct outgrowth of people with disabilities not having a place in the system of higher education historically.”

Callow added that inoculation allows disabled people to exercise their right to live more safely and makes a statement against the idea that their lives are “less worthy.”

However, UC Berkeley students struggle to find the information they need.

Cameron Johnson, a PhD student in the sociocultural anthropology department, thought he might qualify for vaccination under expanded vaccine requirements. Johnson has asthma, a condition which the CDC considers “might be at an increased risk” of COVID-19, and is a caretaker for his 87-year-old grandmother who is on dialysis.

Although it was difficult to reach primary care, Johnson acknowledged the pre-imposed stress placed on UHS. Still, his phone calls and messages were returned with a “generic response” that UHS was “following CDC guidelines.”

“A lot of students I’ve talked to — they haven’t received any kind of notification. They don’t know about the vaccine plan and that there even is one,” Johnson said. “I worry about a lot of my peers and colleagues during this time in ways that are not being truly addressed structurally.”

Katie Savin, a PhD candidate in the school of social welfare and member of the Disabled Students Commission, also said providers need to conduct more outreach and provide an easy way to get information.

Additionally, Savin discussed the need to address existing biases in health care that result in worse outcomes for disabled people.

“Providers perceive the quality of life in disabled people as pretty poor, even though disabled people themselves don’t necessarily think that,” Savin said. “If a provider doesn’t have a very high view of the value or the quality of someone’s life, then that really shifts that perspective of what treatment should look like.”

Although Savin considers the inclusion of disabled people in vaccine distribution a “victory” for community organizing, she noted that the lack of accessibility in health care persists and can be exacerbated with “nuanced requirements” that block access to marginalized communities.

Nate Tilton, graduate co-chair of the UC System Disability Ad Hoc committee and UC Berkeley Disability Lab manager, advocated for expanding vaccine qualifications to students with disabilities who may be undocumented, undiagnosed or may not yet be listed under state or CDC guidelines.

“Frontload the disabled folks, frontload the vulnerable populations,” Tilton said. “A lot of times disabilities lead to other underlying conditions, and that’s why we have to do that.”

Members of the UC System Disability Ad Hoc committee have also noted the lack of specificity when it comes to underlying conditions or disabilities in many vaccination policies. Tilton proposed acknowledging the diversity of needs within the student body with broad vaccine qualifications, placing trust in those with disabilities or underlying conditions who request vaccines.

Sharing similar sentiments, campus gender and women’s studies associate professor Mel Chen said the conditions to access should be removed and they hope that campus will work more comprehensively than a compliance-only model.

“As long as this campus can meaningfully consult its own constituents — students, staff, faculty, and those contingently employed — we could have a hope of achieving some sort of equity, but not before,” Chen said in an email. “It is eminently possible to have mutually beneficial approaches to structural vulnerability, disabilities, and health concerns in the pandemic, and to aim for all to thrive.”

Contact Catherine Hsu and Jasper Sundeen at [email protected].