Disabled people have often been treated as “an afterthought” throughout the coronavirus pandemic, according to a leading disabled academic.
Professor Tom Shakespeare told a webinar on Tuesday that disabled people had been disproportionately affected in multiple ways, including the disruption to day-to-day NHS services, the impact of lockdown measures, and the isolation and anxiety that lockdown has caused.
Shakespeare (pictured) told the webinar that many routine NHS appointments, for example for speech and language therapy or for assistive technology, such as repairs to wheelchairs or prosthetics, had been cancelled or postponed during the pandemic.
He said: “That’s been difficult for many, many disabled people who rely on these sorts of helps, particularly young disabled people.
“Lots of check-ups missed, lots of preventable medical problems missed for everybody, but particularly for people with disabilities.”
Shakespeare, a director of the International Centre for Evidence in Disability at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, has been working with other academics on a study examining the impact of the pandemic on disabled people in England and Scotland.
The research is based on interviews with almost 70 disabled people with a range of impairments, as well as voluntary and statutory organisations.
He said researchers had spoken to a disabled man in Scotland who had been “marooned” on the top floor of his house for 14 weeks because his stairlift had broken and the maintenance company could not send anyone to fix it, because of the pandemic.
Shakespeare pointed to delays in supporting children with special education needs, and in providing personal protective equipment (PPE) to disabled people who receive support in their own homes.
He said it had often been voluntary organisations – particularly disabled people’s organisations – that had filled this gap.
In social care, many services and contracts had been cancelled or put on hold.
He said: “The suspension of social care makes people dependent on their family, and it excludes them from participation in society.
“Many people are worried that they may never get their services back.”
He added: “There have been many cuts… It’s been extremely hard to get social work, to get social support, and [for] many people their social care packages have been either cut down, reduced to telephone [support] or stopped completely.”
Researchers on the study have spoken to people with dementia who had been participating in mainstream activities at the start of the pandemic but had now “lost confidence” and were not sure they would be able to re-engage once it was over.
Other disabled people they spoke to described how they were missing the physical contact with others that they relied on before the pandemic because of social distancing.
Blind people spoke of no longer being able to shop because they had previously relied on being able to handle items in the supermarket, which was no longer acceptable.
Many disabled people in the last year, he said, had been “excluded from public life, excluded from participation in society, reduced to television and being on their own, a great deal of isolation”.
Shakespeare said their research had shown that third sector organisations – because they can “move fast” and “fill gaps” and “change the way they work” – had “made a big difference to people’s mental health and wellbeing” during the crisis, for example by delivering food or PPE, or providing social or emergency support.
He also said that disabled interviewees believed Nicola Sturgeon, the first minister of Scotland, had performed “much better” at delivering clear public health messages during the pandemic than Boris Johnson, the UK prime minister.
He said: “It is an emerging, developing science… but we need clarity in a public health crisis and there has been a lack of clarity.
“The changes to rules have not been clear, and particularly for people with intellectual disabilities, families have had to explain what this means, what they are now allowed to do, or how they should behave.”
Shakespeare said the “messaging” from the government at the start of the pandemic had almost suggested that COVID-related deaths were “justified” because “these people had pre-existing conditions”.
He said: “The messaging was that this didn’t really matter and this was… very scary for disabled people.”
Shakespeare said the pandemic had “exposed and magnified the inequalities that disabled people face”.
He said: “Both because you’re more vulnerable, and because you’re more likely to die, and because of the social arrangements, the afterthought, the existing problems of the social care system have been exposed by the pandemic.”
Meanwhile, the Commons Treasury committee has launched an inquiry into the “different forms of inequality that have emerged or that may have been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic”, and what the Treasury can do to address them.
The areas of inequality the inquiry will focus on include disability, gender and race.
The deadline for submitting written evidence is 5pm on 28 June.
*For sources of information and support during the coronavirus crisis, visit the DNS advice and information page
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