Study: Rural Residents With Disabilities Downplay Public Health Advice

Frequent handwashing is recommended to help combat COVID-19.

MISSOULA – A new study from the University of Montana finds rural Americans with disabilities are less likely to adhere to public health recommendations.

People with disabilities are at higher risk for COVID-19 than their urban counterparts, and the study surveyed people nationwide. It was conducted by UM’s Research and Training Center on Disability in Rural Communities, which is a research center of UM’s Rural Institute for Inclusive Communities.

Andrew Myers, who co-authored the research, said the center compared people’s likeliness to follow measures, such as frequent hand washing and wearing masks, with who they trusted for health information.

“We focused on people with disabilities because they often experience higher rates of secondary health conditions that place them at heightened risk of COVID-19 complications,” Myers said. “We found rural respondents reported higher rates of COVID-19 health risk factors, but less adherence to public health recommendations. Overall, individuals with health risk factors reported adopting fewer public health recommendations than individuals without health risk factors.”

He said rural and urban areas diverge on who people trust and notes health messaging hasn’t always been consistent.

“Folks tend to trust people they understand, and so that could be a reason that you see a difference in who folks trust,” Myers explains.

Trust was highest for service providers, although it was lower in rural areas. People also tended to trust Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984, with urban residents having more confidence in his guidance.

Myers said high trust in President Donald Trump was linked to people less likely to follow health measures. Myers said most health messaging has been urban-centric, such as warning people against joining large crowds.

“You might not even encounter a large crowd, so it wouldn't really be applicable to you – hence perhaps a tendency to think, ‘Oh, well that’s not really for us because the health messaging doesn’t take into account my context, so why would I be listening to that?’” he said.

Myers said the survey focuses on people with disabilities in part because they face some of the highest risks during this pandemic.

“In really any kind of health crisis, they’re usually the first to lose services, the first to experience any kinds of impacts – whether it be from health or economic,” he points out.

The survey took place in late April and early May, after most state shutdowns were in place but before they began phasing in reopening. It was conducted on the Amazon platform Mechanical Turk, which recruits people for work like filling out surveys.

The full study is online at


Contact: Andrew Myers, UM Rural Institute on Disabilities Project director, 406-243-5467,