Impact of COVID on Individuals with Disabilities

Impact of COVID on Individuals with Disabilities: A Mixed-Method Study Driven by Voices of People with Disabilities

Kathy Sheppard-Jones, PhD, University of Kentucky
Harold Kleinert, EdD, University of Kentucky
Kara Ayers, PhD, University of Cincinnati
Chithra Adams, PhD, University of Kentucky
Jian Li, PhD, Kent State University


While COVID-19 has had an unprecedented impact on our world, individuals with disabilities have been disproportionately affected (Ervin & Hobson-Garcia, 2020; World Health Organization, 2020). This study reports the results of an online survey of 990 participants with disabilities near the height of the first surge of the COVID-19 pandemic (July 2020) to understand:

  • Perceived quality of life
  • Life stressors
  • Coping/resilience skills
  • Knowledge of health care rights directly related to the pandemic
  • Social distancing compliance
  • Technology use

Research Questions

  1. What was the self-perception of quality of life of persons with disabilities at a single point in time during the pandemic?
  2. How did individuals with disabilities report their coping/resilience skills during the pandemic?
  3. To what extent did individuals with disabilities have access to needed technology during the pandemic?
  4. How was individuals’ perceived level of stress related to their self-ratings of coping/resilience skills, access to technology, and self-reported quality of life?

As secondary questions, we also examined knowledge of health care rights related to COVID and compliance with public health guidelines.

Participants (n = 990)

  • Gender Male: 540 (54.6%), Female: 436 (44.1%), Other: 13 (1.3%)
  • Age Mean: 34.5 (SD=9.01)
  • Race/Ethnicity White/non-Hispanic: 455 (46%), Non-white: 527 (53.7%)
  • Receiving Assistance or Services Yes: 969 (98%), No: 20 (2%)
  • Access to Technology Don’t Have the Technology I Need to Stay Connected: 180 (18.3%), Sometimes Able to Use Technology to Stay Connected: 505 (51.4%), My Technology Needs Are Met: 297 (30.2%)
  • Amount of Technology Use More Than Before COVID-19: 374 (38%), About the Same as Always: 437 (44.4%), Less than Before COVID-19: 174 (17.7%)


  • Perceived Stress Scale (Hewitt et. al., 1992)
  • Brief Resilient Coping Scale (Sinclair & Wallston, 1992)
  • Perceived Quality of Life
  • Knowledge Scale
  • Technology Access and Use
  • Disability Status
  • Social Distancing Compliance
  • Qualitative Items


  • Less than 4% “went out regularly and responded as they normally would,” with a full two-thirds either staying at home entirely or only leaving their home to purchase essentials.
  • Self-rated quality of life, coping/resilience skills, number of disabilities/functional limitations, and age were all significantly related to perceived stress.
  • Perceived stress scores increased significantly when their age (p < .01) and number of disabilities (p < .001) increased.
  • Perceived stress scores decreased significantly when their quality of life (p < .001) and coping/resilience (p < .001) increased or if they received assistance/services (p < .001).
  • Increased use of technology since the pandemic was associated with increased stress; yet, access to needed technology was not related to perceived stress.
  • Knowledge of medical rights was significantly associated with following social distancing practices and guidelines.
  • There were no significant differences between white/non-Hispanic participants (N = 455, 46.3%) and non-white participants (N = 527, 53.7% in our quality of life, coping/resilience, or perceived stress measures, or in knowledge of health care rights, or social distancing practices. There was a significant difference in access to technology, with a higher percentage of non-white respondents indicating they did not have access to needed technology.
  • Seven themes of life stressors were identified: health issues, social interactions, negative emotionality, socio-political matters, supports, safety and protection, and barriers.


  • People with disabilities have been disproportionally affected by COVID-19. The stressors our participants reported reflect the often-overwhelming impact of the COVID pandemic they experienced.
  • Ensuring that people with disabilities are aware of coping skills and how to promote resilience is something to which we must attend. The coping strategies our respondents used during the pandemic, though perhaps more explicitly and intentionally practiced because of the severity of the impact and resultant social isolation, are important even when life returns to some semblance of normal.
  • Given health needs of individuals with disabilities, health care rights knowledge will be continually important as the pandemic subsides.
  • The stressors that have contributed to the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on individuals with disabilities (e.g., poverty, higher rates of unemployment, mental health needs) are factors that have long been in place for persons with disabilities (Cree et al., 2020). These underlying factors must continue to be addressed in public policy initiatives well after the pandemic is over.


  • Our measures were simply a snapshot in time.
  • Our participants reflected individuals who had access to computers/internet, which excludes those who don’t have either. Those individuals may have been even more impacted, and experienced greater social isolation, especially in the pandemic.


Cree, R., Okoro, C., Zack, M., & Carbone, E. (2020). Frequent mental distress among adults, by disability status, disability type, and selected characteristics United States, June 24–30, 2020. Morbidity Mortality Weekly Report, 69, 1049–1057. DOI:
Ervin, D. A., & Hobson-Garcia, D. (2020). Community supports and COVID-19: Self-determination in a pandemic. Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, 58(6), 453– 457.
Hewitt, P. L., Flett, G. L., & Mosher, S. W. (1992). The Perceived Stress Scale: Factor structure and relation to depression symptoms in a psychiatric sample. Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment, 14(3), 247–257.
Sinclair, V. G., & Wallston, K. A. (2004). The development and psychometric evaluation of the Brief Resilient Coping Scale. Assessment, 11(1), 94–101.
World Health Organization. (2020). Disability considerations during the COVID-19 outbreak.