Outside of Middlesex hospital in Connecticut, where visitors must now be allowed for disabled people.

A Connecticut state policy that prohibited disabled hospital patients from having visitors has been found to be discriminatory by the Office of Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The policy, put in place in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, resulted in patients being cut off from family members and other assistants who help them communicate or provide other forms of essential support.

This finding “sets a national precedent for how states and hospitals can ensure their policies comply with federal disability laws,” says Alison Barkoff, director of advocacy at the Center for Public Representation, one of the organizations that filed the complaint in May. “The COVID-19 crisis has laid bare the discrimination that people with disabilities face in accessing healthcare.”

According to the complaint, people with disabilities were “not being permitted necessary exceptions” to no-visitor policies, in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act.

As part of the complaint’s resolution, Deidre S. Gifford, acting commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Public Health, issued an executive order that says people with disabilities who are patients in that state’s hospitals, or other acute care settings, may designate up to two people to stay with and assist them for up to a day at a time. Also, hospitals must provide these assistants with personal protective equipment. Assistants may be turned away if they have had COVID-19 or are exhibiting symptoms.

One of the people mentioned in the Connecticut complaint was Shayne Sessa, 48, who has intellectual disabilities and cerebral palsy, uses a motorized wheelchair and communicates by using “one or two word phrases, sounds, and gestures” and by pointing to pictures on an iPad. He was admitted to a hospital in April with a high fever and placed on a unit for people suspected of having COVID-19. His mother, Penny Barsch, was not allowed into the hospital to be with him

Sessa tested negative for Covid-19 and instead received intestinal surgery. But because he had no familiar person supporting and communicating with him, the ordeal stressed him to the point where he had to be put in restraints, the complaint said.

In an interview with New Mobility, Barsch said, “I felt like I was really letting him down by not being there to support him. It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever been through.”