Nasra Hassan and Demetria Kelley, who both work on vaccine outreach for the Minnesota Disability Law Center, pose in front of their office in downtown Minneapolis on July 16th, 2021. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

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Minnesota tracks distribution of the shots by many measures, including race, age, and geography. One important high-risk group it’s not tracking, however, is people with disabilities. 

Health experts know that many people with disabilities suffer a greater risk for severe illness if they contract the virus. That’s why one local organization just got a boost from the federal government to connect them to the vaccine. 

The Minnesota Disability Law Center, which is part of Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid and provides free legal services to people with disabilities, was recently awarded $60,000 by the federal Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Community Living.

The grant is part of a total $100 million announced earlier this year by President Joe Biden’s administration to organizations around the country to increase vaccine access to the elderly and people with disabilities. The grant lasts through 2021.

Anna Solowiej, a supervising attorney with the Disability Law Center, said her organization is using the grant to target communities that it hasn’t historically served. 

“We’re really trying to connect with immigrant communities, with marginalized communities that we really haven’t reached,” Solowiej said. “We’re trying to use the vaccine grant to get into some communities that don’t know about us.” 

Close to 600,000 people who report having disabilities live in Minnesota, according to the Minnesota State Demographic Center. Ambulatory disabilities, or trouble with walking, and cognitive disabilities are the most common. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says conditions like Down’s Syndrome, chronic lung conditions, and the immunocompromised raise the likelihood of severe illness during a COVID-19 infection

As a part of the grant, the Disability Law Center set up a hotline, (651) 621-9266, and email address, vaccination@mylegalaid.org, for people who need help accessing the vaccine. Five of the Disability Law Center’s 28 employees work on COVID-19 vaccine matters, including answering calls from the hotline, which is open Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. 

To date, more than 65 percent of the state’s population aged 12 and older have received at least one dose of the vaccine, according to the Minnesota Department of Health. Across racial lines, Black, Indigenous, and Latino people aged 15 and older report vaccination rates between 50 and 57 percent, according to state data, while the white population has a 64 percent vaccination rate and the Asian population a 73 percent vaccination rate. 

But the current vaccination rate of people with disabilities in Minnesota is unknown. Earlier this year during the vaccine rollout, the state prioritized vaccinating people who live in group homes and assisted living, as well as people with Down’s Syndrome, immunocompromised conditions, and chronic lung issues. 

But people with disabilities who don’t live in group homes, especially in rural areas, often don’t have easy access to transportation to get to a vaccine appointment, said Bud Rosenfield, a supervising attorney with the Disability Law Center. This remains a concern in the disability advocacy community, he said, as does the lack of data. 

“Frankly our health department, and most health departments, do a pretty lousy job of tracking health outcomes and access by disability type,” Rosenfield said. 

Governments and nonprofits do not have a gold standard to identify, define, and assess what counts as a disability. Because of these complexities, the Minnesota Department of Health does not have vaccination data for people with disabilities, said MDH spokesperson Scott Smith. 

Beyond creating a hotline and email address to connect people with disabilities to the vaccine, the Disability Law Center is sending people like Nasra Hassan out into the community to spread awareness. Nasra, who works as a legal advocate for the Disability Law Center, is doing outreach to local nonprofits, mosques, and going to community events like the recent Somali Independence Day celebration in Minneapolis’s Seward neighborhood to talk to people in the community about a subject that often stays private.

Discussions about disabilities typically stay private in the Somali community, Nasra said, and because of this people in her community don’t always know about resources like the Disability Law Center.

“One thing I want to do in outreach is just letting Somali people know that, number one, it’s not a taboo, and number two, there’s so many organizations out there that can help them,” she said. 

During the Somali Independence Day event, Nasra and her colleagues set up a tent and handed out free supplies like T-Shirts, cups, and bandannas. When people approached the tent to collect these items, Nasra asked them if they had been vaccinated, then engaged them in a conversation about the Disability Law Center and the resources it provides. 

Nasra said she and her colleagues spent six hours that day speaking to more than 100 people. Just three of them said they weren’t already vaccinated. 

Nasra said she was successful in part. After each conversation, she’d hand out her contact information and tell the person to contact the Disability Law Center if they needed support on anything. After the event, three of those people called her back seeking services.

Joey Peters

Joey Peters is a reporter for Sahan Journal. His work has appeared in Reuters, Public Radio International, Columbia Journalism Review, KFAI Radio, the Pioneer Press, City Pages, MinnPost and more. He previously...