As the country continues to wage battle against the novel coronavirus, vulnerable populations have been highlighted repeatedly — including seniors, those with compromised immune systems, and more recently, those living in low-income neighbourhoods.
While there is no doubt all of those groups are particularly susceptible to COVID-19, disabilities advocates say their community is also a large and highly vulnerable group that has been entirely overlooked by the government in many areas.
“People with disabilities in Ontario number at 2.5 million. [They] are facing, really, a triple whammy during this COVID crisis, beyond what everybody else is facing,” says David Lepofsky, chair of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance (AODA).
Lepofsky says the problem includes the following issues:
- People with disabilities are disproportionately prone to contracting COVID-19 and also likely to suffer it’s most severe medical impacts
- A combination of government neglect and failure to plan is making them even more prone to getting COVID-19 than they already are
- If they do get the disease and have to visit a hospital, they face serious existing accessibility barriers in the healthcare system
“The solution is as clear as it is obvious as it is missing. We need the Premier and the Government of Ontario to say ‘we gotta plan. We gotta include in our emergency planning for COVID, specific plans to meet the urgent needs of people with disabilities, who are among the most vulnerable’,” says Lepofsky.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath is also calling on the Ford government to address the needs of Ontarians with disabilities.
“They are worried and concerned that they’ve been left behind,” says Horwath.
She says there is no plan to ensure that people with disabilities will get tested if they begin to show symptoms of COVID-19 and there are concerns in the community that they will not have access to testing like everybody else.
“We’ve asked the government to put in place a plan to have testing available for those folks — that would include ensuring that they can get tested at home,” says Horwath, adding that this would help mitigate the issues of barriers to transit and navigating public spaces for those with mobility issues.
“Let’s not leave these folks out. Let’s do some proactive testing, let’s get to people in their homes and let’s give them the peace of mind that others are able to get by having mobility and being able to go out to testing centres and get that testing done.”
However, testing and care are not the only ways in which Lepofsky says people with disabilities are falling through the cracks.
He adds that thousands of children with disabilities are being left behind as the government implements online learning — which is not accessible to many such students. Plus, he says people with disabilities who live independently at home but still need assistance, are being overlooked as well.
Wendy Porch, the head of the Centre for Independent Living in Toronto, manages a program for about a thousand Ontarians who live independently but need assistance with daily tasks such as eating, getting washed and dressed.
She agrees with Lepofsky and says the people she works with have been ignored.
“The folks that we work with have not been considered a priority in any of the priority populations that we’ve seen defined,” she says. “There has been no particular guidance that’s been released around people with disabilities living at home.”
In addition, she says when the issue is raised with authorities, they are told they’re “just not there yet.”
“There’s no attention paid to this population at this point,” says Porch.
Making matters arguably worse is that those who care for people with disabilities at home are not receiving any government assistance with personal protective equipment (PPE), despite being essential workers with close physical contact with clients.
“Our program … is not a medically oriented program, but the people who receive these supports at home, they see the same personal support workers that work in long-term care facilities and they’re certainly at risk. But because they’re at home, it seems as though they’ve fallen through the cracks,” she says. “Because we were named as an essential service, if we could be included in the kind of supply chain relationships that exist between the Ministry of Health and some of these suppliers [of PPE], that would go a long way towards solving this problem for our folks.”
In addition to these worries, Lepofsky says one of his biggest concerns is what he calls the province’s “secret plans” on how patients will be prioritized should critical equipment such as respirators fall into short supply. He says the government’s plans to ration critical medical care if such a situation were to arise leaves out those with disabilities.
In an open letter, the province responded to such concerns saying all will be treated equally.
“We believe that a human life cannot be valued differently. As such, Ontario Health has been asked to consult with the Ontario Human Rights Commission, as well as human rights and key community experts, to make certain that any medical protocols that may be required during this outbreak do not disproportionately affect vulnerable groups, including people with disabilities, older persons, Indigenous communities and racialized people,” they said
Health Minister Christine Elliott was asked about the issue at the province’s daily briefing on Wednesday. She said the government is willing to accommodate everybody.
“If people need to be tested, we can take the testing to them, especially people with disabilities who maybe have significant mobility challenges,” she said. “We want to make sure, if they need to be tested, that they will be tested and if they need care that they will receive the care that they need, including hospital admissions or if they’re doing self-isolation — making sure that they have the supplies and equipment and assistance that they need.”
At this time, the province has not yet put forth a definitive plan for at-home testing and care.