Building back better – disabled people and COVID-19

Today marks International Day for Persons with Disabilities (IDPD). Emily Brothers considers the opportunities and threats having resonance in this year’s theme: Building Back Better – toward a disability-inclusive, accessible and sustainable post COVID-19 World. 

Seven international organisations have collaborated to produce the COVID-19 Disability Rights Monitor. Through their survey they found a “catastrophic impact” from the pandemic on disabled people worldwide. The report highlights “inadequate” measures to protect disabled people in institutions, a “significant and fatal” breakdown of community support and the disproportionate impact on under-represented groups of disabled people, such as children, women, homeless people, and those living in rural areas. Governments around the world have failed to provide effective interventions, consequently infringing right to life and deprivation of liberty.

From COVID-19 UK deaths, 59% have been disabled people.

There has rightly been much attention given to the implications of covid-19 on people from minority ethnics groups. However, little consideration has been given to the disproportionate impact on disabled people.

Optimism is rising with vaccines on the brink of release, but many disabled people may still be left behind. Disabled people under 65 considered severely vulnerable are sixth in the priority list for a jab. It means many disabled people remaining at risk for longer than necessary.

Labour and trade unions has challenged the government over the death toll in care homes. There has been a flurry of Do Not Resuscitate Notices, resulting in a disturbing re-prioritisation of care, resulting in disturbing decisions about who lives or dies.

It is also alarming that safeguarding may have been compromised by the Care Quality Commission halting inspections. As Winterbourne View and Whorlton Hall cases have demonstrated, service-users are at risk of exploitation. There can be no surprise that many in residential care are worried about violence, abuse, inappropriate medication, restraint and seclusion during the pandemic because they haven’t received visits from family, friends and advocates.

The emergency Coronavirus Act means that local councils do not need to carry out assessments and no longer have a legal duty to meet eligible care and support needs of disabled people as set out in the Care Act (2014). Many councils have deferred or streamlined packages of support that enable independent living.

Bias in recruitment and retention, discrimination in the workplace and the Disability Pay Gap present challenges as the country’s economy seeks to recover. Some disabled people are being pressed to go back to work without effective reasonable adjustment, including Personal Assistants in some cases.

Travel and shopping have proven challenging for many disabled people. Social distancing is hard to observe and getting assistance is more difficult.

The pandemic has cut through many fundamental rights that disabled people have strived over the last century: from Community’s history in 1920 when blind workers marched for better pay and conditions, in 1970 Labour improving social support and in 1995 activists securing disability rights legislation. Despite that progress covid-19 has exposed deep inequalities and prejudice that endure.

The task to “build back better” will be difficult. However, we have much experience to draw on, better understanding what works and how things may need to be done differently. It isn’t just about capturing lost ground, but reinforcing our foundations in the Labour and trade union movement by ‘building Back better’ with the UN Convention on the Rights of Disabled People enshrined into domestic law, replaced the broken social care system with a National Independent Living Service (NILS) and creating a more robust legal framework to protect disabled workers rights. This is the vision to take us toward a disability-inclusive, accessible and sustainable post COVID-19 world.

Emily Brothers is a Community disability activist and endorsed by the union in recent Labour Party NEC elections. She is an Executive Committee member of the Fabian Society and was Labour Parliamentary Candidate in 2015 for Sutton and Cheam.

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