Document Type


Publication Date



COVID-19, coronavirus, legal responses, pandemic, public health, law, public health law, disability, people with disabilities


One in four Americans — a diverse group of 61 million people — experience some form of disability (Okoro, 2018). On average, people with disabilities experience significant disparities in education, employment, poverty, access to health care, food security, housing, transportation, and exposure to crime and domestic violence (Pendo & Iezzoni, 2019). Intersections with demographic characteristics such as race, ethnicity, gender, and LGBT status, may intensify certain inequities. For example, women with disability experience greater disparities in income, education, and employment (Nosek, 2016), and members of under-served racial and ethnic groups with disabilities experience greater disparities in health status and access to health care (Yee et al., 2016). These longstanding inequities are compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic and by governmental and private responses that discriminate on the basis of disability. Legal protections of people with disabilities are governed by two key federal laws: the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (“Section 504” or “Rehabilitation Act”). Together, these laws ensure that people with disabilities have equal opportunities in employment, in state and local services and programs, and to goods and services. The broad reach of these laws impacts a host of issues raised by the COVID-19 pandemic. Enforcing agencies have provided COVID-19-specific guidance on the application of the laws in health care and in employment. However, gaps in protections as well as widespread lack of knowledge of and noncompliance with the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act limit their impact. Recommendations include: continued enforcement of the laws; clear and current agency guidance on how to comply with the laws; education about the requirements of the laws, especially in health care settings; and improved data collection and reporting.

This paper was prepared as part of Assessing Legal Responses to COVID-19, a comprehensive report published by Public Health Law Watch in partnership with the de Beaumont Foundation and the American Public Health Association.