Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

You are here

Ableism in the Triage System

kyhong's picture

During the height of the pandemic, one thing that kept being brought up was that due to a weak healthcare system and the overall nation's unpreparedness to address such a wide-scale pandemic, hospitals would be forced to ration out ventilators and other medical resources. It begs the following question: What lives are considered more valuable than others? This week's readings address a frightening truth, which is that disabled lives are cast away in times of crisis. In the article "My Life is more 'Disposable' During this Pandemic," Elliot Kukla explains how the triage system is inherently biased toward disabled people. Kukla notes, "The rationale is twofold: We are less likely to survive, and caring for us may take more resources. This is not an unusual triage decision to make in wartime or pandemics; our lives are considered, quite literally, more disposable." While disabled lives are always less valued, global pandemics like Covid-19 heighten such attitudes, where doctors coldly dismiss disabled patients and leave them to die under the guise of optimization and "saving the most lives possible."

Another sickening thing has to do with vaccine distribution. When the vaccines were made available to the public, they were initially given to those who worked in the medical field or other "high-risk" jobs and immuno-compromised people. However, I heard from non-disabled people who joked or seriously thought about claiming that they had a disability in the vaccine form so that they could get vaccinated early. Horrifyingly, this shows that even when minimal avenues are available to disabled people, they can be easily exploited by non-disabled people who believe they deserve such resources first because they consider themselves more "survivable" compared to disabled people.

So how can we address ableism within the triage system? The Hastings Center proposes numerous suggestions, including critically analyzing triage exclusion criteria and reaching out to local disability rights groups for input. However, the list fails to acknowledge other issues related to the triage system that limit care for disabled people. For instance, those without insurance can't afford care in the first place. Or what about racism, especially anti-Blackness, and harmful perspectives of higher pain tolerance compared to white people, resulting in chronically ill Black people being rejected from care? Or employment in the United States is structured in a way that makes people unable to fully rest from health conditions and receive appropriate accommodations? The reality is that six "concrete strategies for minimizing ableism in crisis planning" is simply not enough.