Opposition to Recent Ableist Remarks from CDC Director

This letter was sent to Dr. Walensky on 1/12/21.

On January 7, 2022 during an interview to Good Morning America, the Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Dr. Rochelle Walensky, stated that “The overwhelming number of [COVID-19] deaths, over 75% occured in people who had at least 4 comorbidities, so really these are people that were unwell to begin with. And yes, really encouraging news in the context of Omicron [to get vaccinated and boosted]. And yes we are really encouraged by these results.”

The disability community is outraged at the CDC's utter disregard for the lives, health and value of people with disabilities as expressed in this statement. Co-morbidity is usually an alternative descriptor for disability that incorrectly conflates disability with illness. Her statement communicates that this large group, including 26% of the population, according to Director Walensky’s agency, is “unwell” and is acceptable collateral damage in the battle against the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dr. Walensky’s comments reflect at minimum, a view of people with disability as unwell but her comments also express a more dangerous view that is perilously close to a recommendation for denial of treatment to persons with underlying conditions and potentially a violation of protections afforded people with disabilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act and other civil rights laws.

Building trust between the CDC and people with disability requires leadership that is dedicated and trained to recognize discrimination against and to protect the rights of people with disability and older adults.

“~840,000 people have died and much of them Black, indigenous and people of color with disabilities, but @CDCDirector is “encouraged” by this fact.”

- Imani Barbarin

There is nothing “reassuring” about the news that people of all ages with four or more comorbidities are more likely to perish from Omicron. The Director’s statement implies that people with comorbidities are of less value, and therefore their COVID-19 deaths are more acceptable and tolerable, implying that people with disabilities have little value and thus are expendable.

If the CDC had said it was “encouraging news” that Omicron fatalities were more likely to occur in children, there would be a massive outcry. As a society, we devalue people with disabilities, including children and older adults with disabilities. This is particularly true for multiply-marginalized disabled people which are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19.

"Disability only becomes a tragedy for me when society fails to provide the things we need to lead our lives -- job opportunities or barrier-free buildings, for example."

- Judy Heumann

The CDC aims to save lives, protect people from health threats and pledges to “treat all persons with dignity, honesty, and respect.” Instead, they dismiss disabled lives as collateral damage of the pandemic, and put forth an ableist and deadly message that is antithetical to the CDC’s intent to control and prevent disease.

Without clear leadership to eliminate ableism and ageism, we will continue to create exclusionary, dangerous and deadly policy, systems, and environments.

We call on the CDC to mitigate further harm in their efforts to improve COVID-19 outcomes for ALL.

We request a meeting with Dr. Walensky to begin a shared effort to replace ableist messaging with messaging that advances the CDC’s commitment and leadership on zero tolerance for ableism and ageism.

Sincerely,

ADAPT Montana

American Foundation for the Blind

Atlantis Community, Inc.

Autistic People of Color Fund

Autistic Self Advocacy Network

Autistic Women & Nonbinary Network

Black and Brown United in Action

Bloom's Connect

California Foundation for Independent Living Centers

Cara Sachs Coaching

Center for Dignity in Healthcare for People with Disabilities

Colorado Cross-Disability Coal

CommunicationFIRST

Connecticut Legal Rights Project

Council for Relationships

Council For Relationships/ Thomas Jefferson Health System

Critical Design Lab

CT Cross Disability Lifespan Alliance

DC Metro ADAPT

Disability Pride PA

disAbility Resource Center

Disability Rights Center

Disability Rights NC

Disability Rights Now

Disability Section of the American Public Health Association

DMV Disability & Sr Community Group

Georgia ADAPT NATIVE 2 NATIVE

Gulf Coast ADAPT

Independence Northwest, Inc.

Independence Place Inc.

Iowa Disability League

June Kailes, Disability Policy Consulting

Justice in Reach

MassADAPT

Minnesota Autistic Alliance

Mirror Memoirs

National Association for Rights Protection and Advocacy

New Jersey Disability Collective

NJ-SILC

Not Dead Yet

Open Mouth Literary Center

PA ADAPT 

PeoplesHub

Philly ADAPT

Progress Center for Independent Living

Project LETS

Roustabout Media

San Jose Peace and Justice Center

Senior and Disability Action

Shasta College

Silicon Valley Independent Living Center

Saving Institutional Lives Via Emergency Relocation (SILVER)

Summit Independent Living

Tash, Sabe, Arc, SCDD

The University of Georgia - Students for Disability Advocacy

Together We Will - San José

Together We Will Baltimore Area

Traverse City Record Eagle Adapted in TC

United Cerebral Palsy

University of Montana/DisDATA

UPRISE Collective

US Society for Augmentative and Alternative Communication

World Institute on Disability

Yad HaChazakah-The Jewish Disability Empowerment Center

 

Individuals

Aaron Timm (UT)

Abby Bronstein, MFT, LCSW (PA)

Abigail Rueger (KY)

ABilly S Jones-Hennin (DC)

Adrienne Burns (MN)

Aimi Hamraie (TN)

Alessandra Aoife Muller-Thyme (NY)

Alexa Mavroidis (VA)

Alexander Sing (CA)

Alexander Sinnott (OR)

Allie Cannington (CA)

Alyson Berman (OR)

Amanda Votta (MA)

Amita Swadhin (CA)

Amy Genevieve Kozak (MD)

Anais, she/her (DMV)

Andrew Myers (MT)

Andrew Raymond (MN)

Anne W. Gunter, M.A. (IL)

Arin Leopold (MT)

Bea Hollander-Goldfein (PA)

Blair (CA)

Byron Parker (KY)

Caitlin Rice (PA)

Camille Edwards Bennehoff (MD)

Candie Burnham (CO)

Cara Liebowitz (NY)

Cara Sachs (VT)

Carol Tyson (DC)

Cheryl Gottlieb (MD)

Chloe Wise (GA)

CJ (CT)

Clarke Lunara (VA)

Dahlia Shaewitz (MD)

Dani McCulloch (MN)

Daniel Yusupov (PA)

Danielle E. Augustin (OH)

David Ruttenberg (FL)

David Zuckerman (Fmr. Lt. Gov. Vermont) (VT)

Deborah Cherry (PA)

Del. Sheila Ruth (MD)

Dennis Christopher Butler (DC)

Diane Coleman (NY)

Donna Harris (OR)

Dr. Martha Rinehart (NJ)

Dr. S. Etawi O'Byrne DAOM, LAc (OR)

Eileen M. Healy (CT)

Felicia Gershberg, PhD (CA)

Germán Parodi (PA)

Gloria Garton (NC)

Grey Louisos (ME)

Gwendolyn Mauroner (AR)

Halcyon Selfmade (CA)

Harriotte Ranvig (MA)

Heather May (NY)

Heather Sims (AL)

Janine Bertram (WA)

Jenn Ratcliff (KY)

Jenn Wolf (IA)

Jessica Barber Brown (KY)

Jessica Ludy (CA)

Jill Klausen (CA)

Jim House (WA)

Joey Gidseg (TX)

Josh Sadoff (MN)

Julie Li Yang (MN)

Judith Tressberg (VA)

Julie Reiskin (CO)

June Kailes (CA)

K.E. (AL)

Kara Ayers, PhD (OH)

Kate MacDonnell (DC)

Katerina (GA)

Kathy Flaherty (CT)

Katie Haus (IN)

Ken Butler (CT)

Kerry Sheehan (MA)

Kevin G. Nunez (NJ)

Kim MacDonald (VA)

Kira Meskin, OTD, OTR/L (IL)

Laurel Roe (PA)

Lauren Wall (DC)

Liberte Locke (MA)

Lisa Caron (CT)

Lisa Handler (PA)

Liz Borkowski, MPH (DC)

Lucy Miller (PA)

Elder (CA)

Madeline Hoch (PA)

Marcie Roth (MD)

Margaret S. Roth (PA)

Maria Church (KY)

Maria Elena Peterson (WA)

Mark Fenicle (CA)

Marsha Katz (MT)

Matthew CP Purinton, MSW LCSW (PA)

Meghan Wolf (KY)

Melissa Marshall (CT)

Michael Thornton (AR)

Michele Mashburn (CA)

Michelle Stevens (PA)

Mike Oxford (KS)

Millie Gonzalez (NJ)

Mimi Rankin (LA)

Miriam Hertz (ID)

Mollie McLeod (CA)

Molly Cole (CT)

Molly Wiesman (IL)

Monika Kerby (CA)

Nancy Leeds (DC)

Nethra Ankam, MD (PA)

Nicholas Elizabeth Faby (NY)

Nicki Vander Meulen (WI)

Nicole LeBlanc (MD)

Nina Fortuna (PA)

Niria Alicia Garcia (CA)

Noelle Kurth (KS)

Norman A. Smith (NJ)

Orit Shpilman (MD)

Pam Heavens (IL)

Priscilla Garces (NJ)

Priya Penner (NY)

Quinn Benson (VA)

M. McCallum (CA)

Regina S. Dyton (CT)

Rev. Maggie Shreve (IL)

Rhoda Gibson (MA)

Rob Spirko (TN)

Ryan Duncanwood (CA)

Samantha G. (CA)

Sarah Maxfield (NY)

Sarah Valdivieso (NJ)

Shaylin Sluzalis (PA)

Sheri Burns (CA)

Sheryl Grossman (MD)

Shyla Patera (MT)

Sloane Sengson (GA)

Spencer Koelle (PA)

Stefanie Lyn Kaufman Mthimkhulu (RI)

Susan Mazrui (WA)

Susan Odgers (MI)

Susan West (CT)

Tasha W (PA)

Tessa Peoples, MFT (PA)

Thomas Hale, Ph.D. (AZ)

Tom Olin (TX)

Tony Alexander (CA)

Vicki Landers (PA)

Wendy Ross (PA)

Yanin Kramsky (CA)

The CDC lists these medical conditions as comorbidities that are associated with higher risk of severe COVID.

Dr. Walensky says if you have four of these conditions you “are unwell to begin with.”

  • Diabetes type 1 or 2
  • Cancer
  • Solid organ or blood stem cell transplant
  • Heart conditions
  • Stroke or cerebrovascular disease
  • HIV infection
  • Immunocompromised state (weakened immune system)
  • Pregnancy
  • Overweight and obesity
  • Mental health conditions
  • Neurological Disorders
  • Down syndrome
  • Dementia
  • Sickle cell or thalassemia
  • Smoking (current or former)
  • Pulmonary hypertension (high blood pressure in the lungs)
  • Pulmonary embolism (blood clot in the lungs)
  • Pulmonary hypertension (high blood pressure in the lungs)
  • Substance use disorders
  • Tuberculosis
  • Chronic kidney, liver, and lung diseases
  • Asthma (if it’s moderate to severe)
  • Bronchiectasis (thickening of the lungs airways)
  • Bronchopulmonary dysplasia (chronic lung disease affecting newborns)
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), including emphysema and chronic bronchitis
  • Having damaged or scarred lung tissue such as interstitial lung disease (including idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis)
  • Cystic fibrosis, with or without lung or other solid organ transplants

Quick Stats:

US population (2020) = 329.5 million

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