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People with Disabilities’ Use of Telehealth During the Pandemic

By Carli Friedman, CQL Director of Research

During the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a rapid increase in the use of telehealth for health care delivery. While people with disabilities are disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, telehealth technology can be inaccessible and is not always designed with people with disabilities in mind. For these reasons, the aim of this study was to explore people with disabilities’ use of telehealth during the COVID-19 pandemic (April-July 2021). To do so, we analyzed data from 39,000 people with disabilities. We weighted the data to mirror population demographics in the United States.

We found that during the April to July 2021 period, 39.8% of people with disabilities used telehealth within the last month of taking the survey. However, people’s use of telehealth differed both depending on their disability type and by their other sociodemographics. For example, people with mobility disabilities (43.3%) were the most likely to use telehealth, while people with hearing disabilities (34.5%) were the least likely (see figure below).

Telehealth Use by Disability Type

Telehealth use: 36.8% visual disability; 34.5% hearing disability; 41.1% cognitive disability; 43.3% mobility disability.

In addition, across disability type, men, people with less education, and people who lived in the South and Midwest of the United States were less likely to use telehealth. People with disabilities who had health care coverage through their employer, private insurance, Medicare, Medicaid, and Veterans Affairs were more likely to use telehealth than people with disabilities with other forms of health care coverage. When we examined within each disability population, there were additional disparities based on age, race, education, health care coverage, and geographic region (see full study for more information).

People with disabilities “are frequently an overlooked population in regards to public health research and policy development. The failure to recognize this community and their needs likely contributes to why people with disabilities were disproportionally impacted by COVID-19. Telehealth promises to open doors to more equitable health care access for many people with disabilities, but this can only occur if significant attempts are made to reduce disparities in telehealth and technology, and to expand the accessibility of telehealth technology and practices for people with disabilities” (Friedman & VanPuymbrouck, 2021, p. 11).