Breaking Ground 104 - Knowing My Worth: How I Used My Voice During COVID

By Jean-Marie Lawrence, Council member for the Southeast Development District
an outdoor headshot of Jean-Marie; she’s sitting in her power wheelchair, and has short straight hair dyed a soft yellow and bright pink; she has a few ear piercings and rimmed glasses and she is smiling

I’m an emergency management planner by profession; I prepare as best I can, limit the damage wherever possible, and react based on facts and what I can control. As the COVID-19 virus spread closer and closer to home, I was anxious, but confident in my ability to survive. What I didn’t expect was how the pandemic would affect me as an activist, shining a light on civil rights issues many of us did not know existed.

Early in the pandemic, I learned many states had guidance in place in case hospitals had more patients than they could handle in an emergency and had to limit care.

Some of this guidance allowed hospitals to deny treatment to people with certain health conditions or disability-related criteria. Tennessee had one of these documents, written in 2016 by a state Department of Health workgroup.

Alongside other disability advocates in Tennessee, I began speaking out immediately. I channeled my anger into action: I read the document carefully, highlighting the areas that violated my civil rights. I re-read the Americans with Disabilities Act. I contacted every federal and state representative I had. I made sure other Tennesseans with disabilities were educated and informed about the document and their rights.

The document was soon removed from the state Department of Health website and disavowed by the current Governor’s administration. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued a bulletin that same week, the last week in March, emphasizing that states and hospitals are not allowed to violate civil rights of people with disabilities during a pandemic.

I was able to share my story as part of the Office of Civil Rights complaint filed by Disability Rights Tennessee on this issue. My actions helped make sure the rights of people with disabilities and health conditions were protected in our state.

In a time when I felt powerless to be the person I usually am and face conflict in person, head on, I found a way to use my voice. Ignoring what society said my life was worth, I demanded the worth I knew was mine.