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Independent Living News & Policy from the National Council on Independent Living

The Disproportionate Impact of Vaccine Mandates on Disabled People

By Hanalei Steinhart, NCIL Summer Policy Intern

The United States has recently seen a nationwide resurgence of Covid-19 alongside a push to return to in person work. Many people feel safe to do so as they have been vaccinated, however, insufficient people have been vaccinated to slow the spread of Covid-19. The continued spread of Covid-19 and its variants endangers disabled people who are unable to get vaccinated or will not gain immunity from a vaccination. Many authorities are implementing vaccine mandates to address the continued spread of disease. However, vaccine mandates disproportionately impact people who cannot get vaccinated or are unlikely to develop immunity. Vaccine mandates also force disclosure of disabilities or other medical conditions which may lead to an increase in discrimination.

There are multiple groups of people who have refused vaccination or are unable to get vaccinated. Some of those people are those typically termed “anti vaxxers” who refuse all vaccinations for a variety of reasons including political or religious ones. Others are hesitant about getting a vaccine for a variety of reasons such as African Americans concerned about the government’s history of medical abuse and experimentation in the US. Another group who has often been overlooked are those people who are unlikely to develop immunity from the vaccine. Lastly, some people are unable to get vaccinated for medical reasons. The refusal of those who are eligible and able to get vaccinated has led to an increased spread of Covid-19 that disproportionately impacts the lives of disabled people.

Herd immunity is based on the principle that when a sufficient number of community members are vaccinated, a disease no longer has enough susceptible people to let it travel through the community (Mayo Clinic). This protects the few that are unvaccinated because they are unlikely to encounter the disease. A vaccine mandate is a tool to protect people who cannot be vaccinated. It is issued by a relevant authority and requires individuals to either provide authentic proof of vaccination or disclose their reason for not being vaccinated (CDC).

Before vaccines were developed, quarantines were used as a way to prevent the spread of disease both historically such as with the 1901 bubonic plague pandemic and with the current pandemic. As vaccines have become available, these guidelines have been reduced or removed altogether. The US currently is at about a 50% vaccination rate, which is far from the 70% – 94% recommended by organizations like Mayo Clinic and Johns Hopkins to achieve herd immunity. We have not achieved either the immunity rate or the vaccination level required for herd immunity. Now there are more contagious variants, so disease is once again spreading rapidly and disproportionately affecting at risk community members. In order to prevent the need for a renewal of state or nationwide quarantines, many places are introducing vaccine mandates.

The increased spread of Covid-19 is affecting unvaccinated people in a variety of ways. For those who do not believe in the existence of Covid, they go about their normal lives, but increased numbers of these people are winding up in the hospital and requiring intensive treatment for Covid infections. Those who are medically unable to get vaccinated or unlikely to develop immunity regardless of vaccination status are in a perpetual state of isolated quarantine while most community members “return to normal.” As a result, they must either put themselves at risk or disclose their disability to their place of work or education. 

One issue with the implementation of vaccine mandates is that there is currently no way to authenticate a vaccination record. With prevalent anti-vaccine ideology and propaganda, forged vaccination cards are readily available for purchase. One solution to this would be expanding national vaccination databases, such as those that already exist for measles (CDC). A database or similar authentication system would help provide transparency in spaces that require unvaccinated people to wear masks.

Another issue with the lack of a national vaccination verification system is that there are currently few consequences for forging American vaccination cards. While government agencies have said that there will be harsh penalties, there is little evidence of this so far (NPR, Fake COVID Vaccine Cards Are Being Sold Online. Using One Is A Crime). Allowing people to disclose vaccination status with potentially forged vaccination cards with few negative effects highlights how disabled people will disproportionately face discrimination based on vaccine status.

Many places, including educational settings, advertise that they are requiring staff vaccinations as a way of making parents feel comfortable sending their kids back to school. This is causing an increase in discrimination against disabled employees who cannot be vaccinated. Not only does forced disclosure correlate to increased disability discrimination, but some employers are asking about vaccination status in the hiring process. This sidesteps the federal regulation against employers asking for disability information.

Poorly crafted vaccine mandates out people as disabled in ways that make it more likely for them to experience discrimination. The national framing of vaccinations as personal choice rather than public safety puts disabled people at risk and forces them into self-enforced indefinite quarantine. The implementation of a national vaccination verification system based in national vaccination databases would help prevent vaccination record forgery and could help enforce mask mandates for unvaccinated community members. Denying access to disabled people based on vaccination status is discrimination. However, there is a fine line between denying access to those who cannot get the vaccine or develop antibodies and denying access to those that threaten public safety by refusing to wear masks or be vaccinated.

Hanalei Steinhart Head Shot


  1. George McKinlay says

    Thank you Hanalei for your well written and thoughtful piece. Selfishness seems to be given too much airtime, it is nice to see that real freedom involves doing what’s right for the community.

  2. I don’t think a vaccine mandate should be in place. I developed the antibody the hard way in 2020 and believe the pneumonia vaccine Prevnar-13 I had taken a while ago kept me out of the hospital. I don’t need the vaccine at this point and would sooner think someone else might benefit from it. Megan Wallace, DrPH, MPH, ACIP Meeting October 30, 2020, had an interesting paper on the CDC site. summarizing repeat exposure may maintain immunity. As well. the mRNA was not fashioned after the current variants protein spike so it is losing efficacy whereas natural immunity identifies more of the RNA as an antigen. With my MS I’ve learned my body does not like a lot of different medications. How can they request vaccination proof if a person has the antibody but may have a bad reaction to the chemicals in the vaccine?

  3. Susie Molloy says

    Dear Hanalei,
    Thank you so much for your piece about the vaccine.
    I interact with numerous people with autoimmune illnesses, several of which I live with too, and it’s been hard to put our concerns into language we can share broadly in our communities.
    You’ve articulated the issues so clearly – thank you.