Equal access to health care is one of the rights guaranteed by the Americans with Disabilities Act. In this guest blog, Mary Willard, Director of Training and Technical Assistance for the Association of Programs for Rural Independent Living (APRIL), talks about how Centers for Independent Living are working to ensure people with disabilities have equal access to COVID-19 vaccinations.
Centers for Independent Living (CILs) and partners across the country are working together to remove some of the barriers people with disabilities and those who are aging have experienced in accessing COVID-19 vaccines. One of the major barriers for people in rural settings is transportation.
Many CILs are utilizing creative partnerships for transportation. There are CILs who have used CARES money to contract with transportation companies in their communities such as Uber, Lyft, and taxis to provide free rides for people with disabilities to any of the vaccination sites. A few CILs have their own transportation companies, started with blended funding sources such as funding from area agencies on aging, or local transportation contracts and were able to provide rides through those. Other communities are using this opportunity to advocate with local departments of transportations to expand hours and routes to get folks to the vaccination sites.
Some people cannot leave home. CILs are partnering with local public health departments and programs like Meals on Wheels to help connect a public health nurse to go to these individuals’ homes to administer vaccines. Some Independent Living networks are putting together pop-up vaccine sites in rural communities to meet people where they are – and some are even adding in some fun incentives and giveaways to encourage vaccination. A few CILs chose to become vaccine sites themselves since they are already a location and organization that many people with disabilities know and trust; this helps to address reluctance in getting the vaccine. One creative CIL in CO has been using a mobile vaccine unit to take vaccines wherever they are needed.
CILs train and coordinate volunteers to go with and support through the vaccine process individuals who might be anxious because of their disability or other reasons. There is also work being done to ensure accessibility at vaccine sites including physical accessibility, American Sign Language, plain language, and Spanish information. This also includes working with vaccine sites to expand the vaccine time slots to give more wiggle room for problems such as late transportation. Many CILs are also offering support to individuals to sign-up for vaccines and to provide resources to address myths.
Particularly for younger consumers, CILs are trying to create as many opportunities as possible for open and honest conversations and peer support. It is important to acknowledge that there is a lot of harmful misinformation and many unknowns around the vaccine that keep many consumers from seeking it. Some CIL youth groups have reported that their family members do not believe in vaccination, and they are not allowed to receive it because of this. Others point to people that they know who have had negative effects from the vaccine. Others reported that they felt like the vaccines were rushed through a process and they were nervous that there was not enough information on how it might interact with some of their other disability and medical concerns.
Having peers with disabilities who have already received the vaccination lead the discussion around vaccines helps to make the process feel less scary and create positive dialogue and experiences to combat the negative. Taking the mystery out of the process also helped the younger audience to feel more confident in choosing to vaccinate. For example, one CIL put together a lesson that covered everything about the COVID-19 vaccine. They started the discussion with a check-in to see how everyone was feeling and to get their thoughts on the vaccine, then covered topics like who is eligible, how to get information, how to register for an appointment and what to do once you are fully vaccinated. They finished it with information on fun future events in the community that they might be interested in once they are fully vaccinated.
Of those who already received the vaccine, many said they did it because they would be able to see their family and friend, s and it gave them hope about some of the CIL programming going back to in person and feeling life return to some normalcy. Others felt it was part of their community duty to help provide protection from a very scary virus that has killed too many people with disabilities. Sharing these stories in a group with those who are not vaccinated helped expand the conversation. The more we can share as peers and community members, pairing the good with the bad, the more well-balanced and informed decisions consumers can make.