UIC Student With a Disability Fights to Live Independently in Uncertain Times

The rapid spread of the coronavirus sparked the shutdown last month of colleges around the country. But not every student on campus had somewhere to go, or the ability to live independently.

Noah Ohashi is one of those students. He came to Chicago two years ago to get a degree from the disability studies program at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

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“I came from Japan, so I don’t have any housing other than this,” Ohashi said. “I finally got housing, so I’m now preparing for moving out, but still (don’t have) many people to help me out. Usually I have a support system in place.”

Ohashi needs personal care assistants to help him get from his bed to his wheelchair and who understand his other medical needs. But most of Ohashi’s assistants were fellow students who left campus when classes went online.

“I still only have two PAs (personal assistants). Usually I have six PAs, so I was freaking out because if you have one or another PA who has symptoms, it means I cannot live in the community or campus,” Ohashi said.

Ohashi has been interviewing and hiring new personal assistants, but an already slow process has been made slower by the state’s partial shutdown. The university has started sending Ohashi meals, but when the campus first cleared out he didn’t he didn’t have any assistants to do his grocery shopping.

“I needed to go by myself and I didn’t want to risk my health, so I didn’t use public transportation. I just went by my wheelchair,” Ohashi said.

Two weeks ago, Ohashi was fatigued and had an elevated temperature. He went to the hospital and learned it wasn’t COVID-19. Instead, it was the stress of not knowing where he’d live, not having personal assistants and not having any personal protective equipment, he said.

“I didn’t have any masks. I didn’t have any gloves,” Ohashi said. “Those kinds of things are essential for me because … if I get COVID-19, I’ll be high risk.”

Ohashi believes he’d be at an even higher risk in a nursing home. According to recently published data, Cook County has so far had more than 800 cases of COVID-19 at long-term care facilities, and nearly 150 deaths.

“A lot of people have this idea that disabled people are quote-unquote ‘not worth living,’ and that’s the idea that forces … disabled people (into) a nursing home,” Ohashi said. “As a person who used to live in a nursing home in Japan, I would rather die in the community than go back to the nursing home because it’s no dignity, no freedom, and you don’t have any control.

“We need to fight … for living in the community, but especially in this crisis.”

Ohashi previously interned with the disability nonprofit Access Living. That group has put together a COVID-19 resource guide for the disability community, which is available here.

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