Working-age people with both a hearing and visual impairment in England were nearly 12 times more likely to die due to Covid during the pandemic than people of the same age without such impairments, “shocking” new official figures have shown.
The Office for National Statistics (ONS) says in a new report that reasons for the increased risk of death could include discrimination experienced during the pandemic, and lack of access to information and services such as transport, health care and personal assistance.
The ONS statistics show that younger people* with a visual but no hearing impairment were more than eight times more likely to die than those without such impairments in the same age group, and those with just a hearing impairment were still four times more likely to die a Covid-related death.
Even after taking into account factors such as age, whether someone lived in a care home, if they lived in a more crowded home, working in a job that involved greater exposure to the virus, the level of deprivation of their neighbourhood, or if someone had pre-existing health conditions, the risk of a Covid-related death for people with a hearing, visual and dual-sensory impairment was still 1.30, 1.38 and 1.42 times higher than those without.
The statistics covered deaths between January 2020 and July 2022 for people aged 30 to 100.
Among the organisations that discussed the research with ONS before the report was published were disabled people’s organisations Inclusion London and Disability Rights UK, and the Deaf-led organisation Royal Association for Deaf People (RAD).
They told Disability News Service this week that they were appalled and alarmed by the ONS figures.
Fazilet Hadi, head of policy for Disability Rights UK, said: “These are deeply shocking statistics, which require action from health, social care and other public services.
“The higher mortality rates for people with hearing, vision and dual sensory impairments during the pandemic are unlikely to solely be a feature of COVID-19.
“Instead, the statistics point to systemic health inequalities which need to be challenged.
“It is imperative that voices from these impairment groups are given the opportunity to be heard at the Covid public inquiry.
“We must never again face a pandemic where there is such a deep lack of equity for disabled people.
“The reasons cited by ONS, such as barriers to information and services, are those that are faced daily.
“The government must get serious about implementing the Equality Act and tackling the health inequalities faced by disabled people.
“The endgame if it doesn’t is clear – it really is a matter of life and death.”
Svetlana Kotova, Inclusion London’s director of campaigns and justice, said: “We are appalled, but not surprised, to see the finding that people with sensory impairments were at a much higher risk of death during the pandemic.
“This shows again how the government’s response to the pandemic has failed to protect our lives and livelihoods.
“Instead of making sure vital information is provided in accessible formats, protecting access to services and ensuring reasonable adjustments are made, providing people with support they need, the government chose to reduce our rights or forget about our needs.
“Lessons must be learnt.
“The government must fully consider and address our needs in future pandemics or other emergency planning and work with disabled people and DDPOs** to do so.
“We are also calling on the Covid inquiry to fully investigate and expose those failures, so lessons can be learnt.”
Amanda Casson Webb, RAD’s joint chief executive, said: “The ONS statistics are alarming, but to some extent they confirm what we already know from experience about the impact of COVID-19 on deaf people, especially BSL-users***.”
She said RAD believed the “drivers” for the statistics were about access to information and access to health services.
She said: “Information about the pandemic, and the measures to combat it, was too often inaccessible.
“We frequently worked through the night to translate key announcements into BSL and share them the next morning.
“Even this delay wasn’t acceptable, which is why we supported the grassroots ‘Where is the Interpreter’ (#WITI) campaign and the resulting judicial review of the government’s actions.
“As GP surgery doors slammed shut and telephones became the only way of accessing healthcare, our teams were kept busy contacting doctors on behalf of deaf patients and organising interpreting for remote consultations.
“NHS teams were very variable in their awareness of the impact their actions would have on deaf people.
“That is why we have recently worked with NHS England on their review and updating of their Accessible Information Standard and how it is implemented.
“Only when the government and every healthcare worker and administrator understand how to communicate with deaf people and provide uninterrupted access to services, can we avoid this happening again.”
Previous studies by ONS have concluded that about 58 per cent of Covid-related deaths were of disabled people.
ONS has also previously estimated that, after adjusting for factors such as age, pre-existing health conditions, vaccination status, and the level of deprivation of their neighbourhood, more-disabled women**** were still 1.6 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than non-disabled women.
More-disabled men were 1.4 times more likely to die a Covid-related death than non-disabled men, after adjusting for all the factors.
A spokesperson for the UK Covid-19 Inquiry was unable to say if the new ONS figures would be accepted as evidence and if it would ensure that disabled people with visual and hearing impairments would be asked to give evidence to the inquiry.
But he said: “The inquiry’s terms of reference, which set the scope of the inquiry, require it to consider the impact of the pandemic through the lens of inequality, including disability, and to carefully consider the experience of bereaved families and others who have suffered loss or harm.
“The inquiry’s third investigation, looking into the impact of the pandemic on healthcare, is already underway and will examine people’s experience of healthcare including through illustrative accounts.
“The inquiry will review existing research, in addition to commissioning its own research, to help understand the UK’s preparedness and response to the pandemic.”
*Aged 30 to 69
**Deaf and disabled people’s organisations
***Users of British Sign Language
****That study examined the deaths of those who had described themselves in the 2011 census as “limited a little” in their daily lives by a long-term impairment or health condition (less-disabled), “limited a lot” (more-disabled), or not limited by a long-term impairment or health condition (non-disabled)
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