Commentary: The rationing of human worth

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It seems like a lot of NBA basketball players have tested positive for the coronavirus. I’m glad none of them have gotten deathly ill, and I’m particularly glad that no members of the Chicago Bulls, my hometown team, are said to be sick.

I figure this greatly increases the odds that I’ll get the treatment I need to recover if I get sick and have to go to the hospital. I figure if a power forward and I show up in the emergency room at the same time and the doctors perceive that they can only treat one of us, I’m a goner.

I mean, he’s a prime specimen. He might even have a shoe deal. And I’m just a sarcastic old man in a wheelchair. There’s no way I can compete with him in terms of human worth.

This chilling fear that I might get written off as collateral damage and triaged out because I’m disabled isn’t just some paranoid delusion brought on by too much isolation. It’s for real.

On March 24, the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program filed a complaint with the Office for Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services charging that the state’s emergency plan for rationing ventilators could have “lethal consequences” for disabled folks.

According to the complaint, the plan orders hospitals to “not offer mechanical ventilation support” to people with “severe or profound mental retardation, moderate to severe dementia, and severe traumatic brain injury.” The complaint says the policy also applies to children.

The Center for Public Representation and other organizations also filed a complaint with the same office against the state of Washington. This complaint says the triage plan being developed there “gives priority to treating people who are younger and healthier and leaves those who are older and sicker — people with disabilities — to die.” It argues that “Any plan that discriminates against people with disabilities in this way violates the legal rights of people with disabilities and is unlawful.”

Similar complaints have been filed against Kansas and Tennessee.

So in response, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services on March 28 sent a bulletin to all states that says, “Persons with disabilities should not be denied medical care on the basis of stereotypes, assessments of quality of life, or judgments about the person’s relative ‘worth’ based on the presence or absence of disabilities.” The bulletin points out that this type of discrimination violates federal civil rights laws that protect disabled folks, such as Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

You know these rationing schemes must be a super serious problem when even the Trump administration takes some action in response.

If there was ever a doubt that the lives of people with disabilities are routinely and resoundingly devalued by those who don’t view them from the inside, here it is on full display, at its barest and most hideous.

There’s one thing I know for sure. If LeBron James gets sick and needs a ventilator, he’ll damn sure get one. It won’t matter what sort of protocols or lotteries or whatever are in place. He’ll never be turned away and left for dead.

If that happened, imagine the outrage.



Mike Ervin is a Chicago-based writer and a disability rights activist with ADAPT ( This column was produced for the Progressive Media Project, which is run by The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service.


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