20 May 2020

Overdue but people with a disability get support during COVID-19 crisis

| Michael Weaver
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Suzanne Orr and Dougie Herd

Minister for Disability Suzanne Orr with the Chair of the Disability Reference Group, Dougie Herd. Photo: Supplied.

A long-awaited government strategy will provide 77,300 Canberrans who have some form of disability with better access to support services including personal protective equipment, food and medication. It’s been acknowledged as a worthwhile initiative by the sector, but still requiring detail.

The ACT Government’s COVID-19 Disability Strategy will support people living with a disability, their families, their carers and the disability sector through the COVID-19 pandemic and back to ‘business as usual’.

But business as usual has been looking vastly different for more than 45,000 carers in the ACT who’ve faced cancellations of in-house services due to a lack of personal protection equipment and risks associated with the COVID-19 virus. Carers have instead provided less face-to-face support while concentrating on offering their services via phone, email or online.

Carers ACT CEO Lisa Kelly told Region Media that while the strategy is a good start, it lacks the specifics of a solid action plan for the disability sector.

“Carers have been calling for weeks for confirmation and reassurance that if they were to become sick with the COVID virus, that somebody would step in and provide care for the person they care for. The practicality of a lot of that work is still missing,” Ms Kelly said.

ACT Council of Social Service (ACTCOSS) CEO Dr Emma Campbell said people with a disability, their families and carers have faced rising costs, social isolation and concerns about their personal safety.

“It needs to be said that this strategy is well overdue. The challenges faced by this already-vulnerable section of our community during COVID-19 should have been recognised and addressed earlier in this crisis,” Dr Campbell said.

“During the COVID-19 crisis, ACTCOSS has been advocating for better access to PPE for disability service providers and their clients.

“Lack of PPE has caused people with a disability, services and workers to cancel services that are essential to general wellbeing, health and social connection. This is leaving many people at risk.

“People with a disability face similar challenges around social distancing as those who receive aged care services. The disability sector wants to ensure that it receives the same level of support, information and access to PPE as aged care providers.”

Dr Campbell said the strategy is required to ensure the ACT meets its obligations under the UN Convention of the Rights of People with a Disability and its commitments under the National Disability Strategy.

“These obligations are especially relevant during health emergencies such as COVID-19 where people with a disability face discrimination.”

Minister for Disability Suzanne Orr said many people have worked hard in a very short amount of time to prepare and launch the strategy.

“People with a disability and people within the disability service sector have been concerned that their wellbeing will be disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 and its impacts,” Ms Orr said.

“As we continue to respond to the threat of COVID-19, I want people living with disability and their supporters to know their concerns are heard, that is what this strategy is about and the ACT Government will continue to review the strategy as the pandemic and its implications unfold.”

The strategy prioritises access to personal protective equipment, food relief, medications and consumables. It also ensures adequate support for the disability workforce to plan for the impacts of changes to employment and actions to reduce the impact of financial disadvantage.

Access to emergency accommodation support for those who are socially isolated has also been identified as part of the strategy.

The Disability Reference Group (DRG), which worked with the ACT Government’s Office for Disability, welcomed the announcement. Chair Dougie Herd said a focus on people with a disability, their families and their carers is crucial during this time.

“Some people with disability are among the highest-risk groups in our communities. We need reliable advice, authoritative information and timely responses to keep us, and the community, safe and well,” Mr Herd said.

“Minister Orr has kept in touch with the DRG since the very beginning of the public health emergency. The minister, her staff and the public servants have involved us in their thinking, their policy development and response to COVID-19 planning.”

The strategy acknowledges that the rapid rate of change and disruption to routines can cause substantial distress for many people with a disability.

“In particular, people who also have underlying chronic health conditions, or where the nature of their disability makes it difficult to avoid contact with surfaces in the environment, or where their support needs require unavoidable close contact with people, require considered supports and targeted action to ensure they are adequately supported through the health emergency,” the strategy says.

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