The Impact of the Pandemic on the Disabled Community

Lucy Ham | Student Contributor

The Covid-19 pandemic has had disastrous consequences for communities worldwide and the disabled community were no exception. In pre-pandemic Britain, steps were being made to bridge the gap between those with disabilities and those without, but for almost two years we have seen that gap widen once again. Disabled individuals made up a staggering amount of the mortality figures and those shielding have been left feeling continiously neglected by the government. Vital access to healthcare has been greatly reduced and although virtual accessibility has been increased, we must ask ourselves why it takes a pandemic to do so.

The Office of National Statistics (ONS) released a report revealing 60% of Covid-19 deaths in the UK were people who had a disability. When we consider that only 20% of the population of the UK is disabled, we can see a discrepancy in these figures. Of course, the likelihood of facing complications after contracting Covid-19 is increased if a person has underlying health conditions, however the statistics are so vastly inconsistent there must be other explanations. Between January and November 2020, an individual diagnosed with a learning disability was 3.7 times more at risk of death from Covid-19. Again, this is from the same ONS report and when we combine these details it provides a real insight into the risks Covid-19 poses for the disabled community. The government faced much scrutiny over the early handling of those in care homes, but the media often forgot those who live in disabled residential homes. They suffered from the same shortages of PPE and lack of testing in the early stages of the pandemic which ultimately led to the spread of the virus in these homes. Countless vulnerable individuals contracted Covid-19 not because of the neglect of their care staff but because of a lack of funding and government prioritisation.

Not only are disabled people statistically more at risk from Covid-19, but the discrimination many faced in hospital also increased mortalities. During the peak of the pandemic when the NHS was at its most vulnerable, many facilities had to make the difficult decision to prioritise care based on who they deemed had the greatest chance of survival. The director of the disability charity Scope had reports of disabled individuals having Do Not Resuscitate orders put on their medical files without their knowledge. This vitally undermines the purpose of the NHS and although prioritisation could not be avoided, to make the decision on behalf of the individual without discussing it first is an injustice. Access to healthcare was also an issue for many people who did not have Covid-19 because the reduction in NHS services meant that many individuals had regular treatments cancelled. In June 2021, the BBC carried out a study of 3,351 disabled people and 683 of these responded by saying that all their medical appointments had been cancelled or they were unable to go to them. Those with disabilities often rely on regular treatments and appointments with various specialists to monitor their conditions, not to mention vital physiotherapy sessions. With these appointments cancelled, people were left to their own devices. The BBC study revealed 2,427 respondents said the symptoms of their disability had worsened during the pandemic. There is a direct correlation between the pause in healthcare and individuals being faced with more challenging circumstances because of their disability.

Besides the difficulty of accessing healthcare, one of the other major causes of this deterioration in people’s conditions is as a result of shielding. When the pandemic began, those who were deemed clinically extremely vulnerable were told to stay at home for their own safety. Consequently, they would have reduced opportunity to exercise or engage in activities that are beneficial to a person’s mental wellbeing. Roughly 2.2 million individuals spent months living in their houses and only those with private gardens were able to go outside. The policy introduced by the government was clearly not properly considered for long-term use. Once it had been implemented it was difficult to remove unless case numbers drastically reduced. There are countless accounts of individuals being too scared to leave their homes even once they had been told they could. While the rest of the population were enjoying the ‘Eat Out to Help Out Scheme’, many shielders were still in their confinement. On BBC Radio 4 Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson, a Paralympic champion, said that disabled people ‘can’t just go for a jog’ and that the closure of gyms and leisure facilities greatly reduced a disabled person’s ability to remain active. For those shielding, the videos that appeared all over the internet promoting indoor exercise were not accessible or adaptable. This is clearly shown in a study carried out by Activity Alliance which found that 23% of disabled respondents said they were not given enough advice on how to remain active during lockdown.

Accessibility is not only about physical access to exercise but also in the online world. Over the pandemic there was a surge in online activities with Zoom becoming a household name and Microsoft Teams replacing school classes and meetings in offices. Although this should be celebrated, the disabled community have been asking for flexibility in the workplace and education for years and this has regularly been denied. Suddenly when the masses need these adjustments, they have magically become available; a slap in the face for disabled people who have struggled without these for years. Even though studying has remained online at many universities this year, there are still many issues with the accessibility of online content. Take Royal Holloway for an example, the online lectures have captions but these are often not checked so are regularly incorrect. For a person who is deaf or hard of hearing they cannot rely on the accuracy of these captions. Not only that, but the Moodle website is still not fully compatible with e-readers, programmes that read out loud the text on a webpage, although this is apparently due to change within the next six months. These small details mean that despite having much more content online in a seemingly accessible way, for disabled students this is not necessarily the case and they still have to struggle to access content that is vital for their degree.

We have all faced our own personal challenges during the pandemic over the past nineteen months, but the disabled community has faced a long battle. Not only a battle for access to appointments and treatments but a battle for their right to live and be treated when in hospital. The pandemic has led to a deterioration in many people’s physical and mental state and for those with disabilities this will take a long time to recover. The UK government has ignored the needs of the disabled community during the pandemic, from implementing shielding with little warning or understanding of how long it would last to abandoning those in residential care. They must pledge to do better by encouraging workplaces and education facilities to remain flexible now that online accessibility is a real possibility. They must put in place well-considered protocols for the clinically extremely vulnerable in preparation for another pandemic. Finally, they must address the devastating consequence the pandemic has had in regard to the high mortality rate in the disabled community and ensure that lessons are learned.

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