COVID-19 can infect anybody, but some groups are facing particular risks and challenges, from both the virus and the measures being taken to contain it.
Along with older Australians, people with disability are likely to be more vulnerable to the virus than others, and more affected by the restrictions, social isolation and economic hardship caused by the shutdowns.
With this in mind governments are falling over themselves to prioritise the needs of people with disability and keep them informed, safe and healthy—right?
Well, not quite.
While older Australians have (rightly) been identified as a key at-risk group and those who care for older people have (again, rightly) been recognised as providing essential service, similar measures are yet to be extended to people with disability and their carers.
Last week the Federal Government announced the establishment of an advisory group to develop and implement a disability-focused COVID-19 response plan, to be released today. While a coordinated plan will go some way to addressing these issues, we need urgent and comprehensive action from all levels of government, businesses, organisations and the community.
Here are seven ways policymakers can better support people with disability during the COVID-19 pandemic:
- Provide easy access to the right information.
With public health updates coming thick and fast, many people are at risk of falling through the communication cracks. For instance, there is a lack of Auslan interpretation, and Easy English resources are hard to find. How can we be sure that Victorians with disability are getting the information they need to stay safe and well?
- Guarantee equitable access to healthcare and treatments.
We know many people with disabilities experience poorer health than their non-disabled peers. Some of these differences are socially-determined – for example, physical, attitudinal and organisational barriers that prevent people from accessing timely and effective healthcare. COVID-19 has amplified these faultlines. There’s real concern that discrimination and unconscious bias might lead to people with disability not getting equitable access to healthcare and treatments, particularly if the healthcare system gets overwhelmed. Unfortunately we’ve seen this happen in triage decisions being made in other countries. What protections are in place for people with disability who may not be able to advocate for themselves in difficult medical circumstances?
- Ensure access to essential support services.
Victorians with disability are increasingly concerned that they won’t be able to access vital support services during the public health crisis, especially if they contract the virus themselves, or if their support workers, housemates, family and friends become infected. And what resources are in place if services close down or are no longer able to operate at full capacity, especially for people in rural and regional areas who already have trouble finding services?
- Boost the Disability Support Pension (like other payments).
People with disability experience higher rates of poverty and disadvantage than the general population. Despite this, the Disability Support Pension has not been raised in line with other government supports and payments as part of the pandemic response. Why not?
- Make essential items easier to buy.
Things like grocery shopping have become a logistical challenge for almost all of us, and they can be particularly difficult for people with disability. While initiatives like priority online shopping access for NDIS participants and special early morning opening hours offer some help, these measures don’t work for everyone. Delivery costs for each shop are stretching limited budgets and heavy parcels are being left at the door or the entrance of apartment buildings for some people. In these conditions, how can Victorians with disability access the essentials they need to stay well? While we support the willingness of the big supermarkets to bring in new ways of supporting people with disability, people are still finding it hard to get what they need. We urge the supermarkets to work in partnership with people with disability to work through and address these problems
- Support disability workers to stay well and self-isolate, if necessary.
Self-isolation measures are not always possible for people who need support for things like personal care and eating. And by extension, the disability support workforce are at higher risk of falling ill themselves and passing on the virus to others. While government guidelines indicate that personal protective equipment should only be used where there is a confirmed or suspected case, people with disability and their families are extremely concerned that disability workers, who often visit many people and locations over the course of a day, are not adequately protected. There is a dire, national shortage of personal protective equipment, leaving disability providers and workers scrambling to find alternative sources from hardware stores, or through overseas orders with no certainty about the quality or timing of the delivery We welcome the Victorian Government’s recent extension of COVID-19 testing criteria to include disability workers and the provision of free hotel rooms for emergency workers who need to self-isolate. Will this be extended to disability support workers?
- Ensure strong quality and safeguarding
Even at the best of times, people with disability are at higher risk of violence, abuse and neglect. COVID-19 heightens the risks. Emerging reports internationally and locally show that domestic and family violence is likely to increase during the pandemic and that social distancing, while absolutely necessary, disrupts many of the informal safeguards like social and community connections outside the home. Social distancing also creates challenges for the way formal safeguards usually work, including the usual oversight of behaviour support plans, or the way incidents are usually identified, assessed and resolved, and face-to-face visits from community visitors. In these circumstances, there is a real risk Victorians with disability will be hidden, disconnected and subject to harm – particularly since many disability advocacy and self-advocacy organisations (which are an important part of the safeguarding eco-system) are running on empty and rapidly adjusting the way they work. These are unacceptable risks. A whole-of-government effort – spanning relevant state and Commonwealth authorities – is required to avoid this outcome.
We look forward to seeing the details of the disability-focused response plan to be released today.
Government needs to work in partnership with people with disability, disability workers and the broader disability sector to provide a formal comprehensive strategy with clearly defined actions.
The first necessary action should be an obvious one: the disability support workforce needs to be defined as an essential service, to reduce confusion and stress among people with disability, families, carers and service providers.
Then we need to get to work on the rest.