(*Featured Image: Nadya Labiba)
After more than a month, the Federal Government has responded to calls from people with disability, for targeted measures to safeguard their health and safety during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Advocates first raised concerns when the initial coronavirus support payments were announced on March 12 without specific consideration of those with disability.
Those concerns were heightened when a work-retention bonus, mandatory virus testing and basic protective gear were then announced for aged-cared workers and not disabilities carers – despite both groups having similar vulnerabilities.
After input from state and territory advisory groups, the government this week released an emergency response plan, focussing on people with disability.
Sally*, a community member and advocate, had collated over 20 pages of stories from people at risk of imminent harm and potentially death, if more was not done.
Sally* has severe chronic pain and a functional disability caused by a workplace injury five years ago. She is also the primary carer for her sister, who has autism and psychiatric disabilities.
However, Sally* does not qualify for either, as her injuries are deemed “not stable enough”.
Instead, she falls under the WorkCover system, which has left her susceptible to pay cuts by her workplace insurer, who is not legally required to help people on WorkCover during a crisis.
Her sister on the other hand, qualifies for both the DSP and the NDIS but finds the latter particularly hard to navigate.
These already difficult circumstances have been made worse by COVID-19.
- There are currently more than four million people with disability in Australia.
- On Thursday April 16, the Federal Government released the Management and Operational Plan for COVID-19 for People with Disability.
- A joint statement was released today (April 18) by the Minister for Health Greg Hunt, the Minister for Families and Social Services Senator Anne Ruston and the Minister for the National Disability Insurance Scheme Stuart Robert.
- The plan will address factors such as the reliance on close contact with carers and support workers; having a compromised immune system; and the presence of multiple underlying health conditions.
- The plan will be updated periodically as new evidence emerges.
“Due to the higher than average risk COVID-19 poses to us, we have had to cancel all our usual allied health appointments until we can safely regain access,” Sally* said.
“My sister urgently requires a laptop to be fitted with software and equipment to allow her to… engage in online appointments in a way that is truly disability accessible.
“[But] she does not have any funds available after [covering]… her growing phone and internet bills, which allow her to remain connected to the outside world… and [to] some level of support and community inclusion.
“We are being unjustly further isolated due to prohibitive costs which limit our ability to ensure online connectivity and support.”
Carlie Park, another community member and advocate, notes there is a lack of information on how to safely access healthcare – and no guidelines on what counts as “essential services” for high risk groups like those with disability.
“I think many disabled people are simply overwhelmed by the fear of getting sick, and the mammoth task of trying to keep well and access food, medicine and services,” she said. “All while services are withdrawing or in some cases, becoming less accessible.”
Ms Park struggles to get access to her own essential tablets, which are on back order.
“Because of the pandemic, the chemist doesn’t know when [the tablets] are coming in.
“It would be helpful if someone could contact chemists across Australia and ask if anyone has any on their shelves – or someone could find out clearer information from the drug company about what’s going on.”
In addressing these concerns, Minister for Families and Social Services Anne Ruston, argued that extra funding for eligible carers and people with disabilities was available under the Economic Support Payment (ESP) announced in earlier packages.
Likewise, Minister for the NDIS Stuart Robert, said that disability providers had expressed favourable views to all changes made during the pandemic. These have included a 10 per cent loading on some support, and massive changes to cancellation policies.
Mr Robert also announced the launch of a priority home delivery service on Mondays, to ease the stress for 340,000 NDIS participants currently unable to do their shopping as usual.
But Sally*, whose household is eligible for the service under her sister’s plan, says they have had difficulty managing the system and are yet to receive their two $750 ESPs.
“Many people with disabilities require urgent additional financial stimulus to address the growing disparity in access… and to preserve physical and/or cognitive function and continuation of life.”
“[They need] items that able-bodied people often take for granted, such as safe food (due to sensitivities or specific conditions), medical supplies, personal protective equipment, and personal assistive technology and equipment, to name a few.
“Not everyone with a disability is currently accepted into the NDIS, and we are finding that even those who do have access, are experiencing difficulty receiving what is reasonable and necessary due to a lack of funds or systemic barriers.”
Ms Park similarly argues that many disabled people and those with chronic illnesses, particularly those without the streamlined process available for NDIS participants, will struggle to access food delivery services.
She is also concerned that many don’t have the hardware, internet access or knowledge to shop online – or to find alternatives to major supermarkets.
“It would be great to have a helpline for disabled people who are struggling to access supplies and have these supplies be sourced for them.”
“And if the major supermarkets can’t deliver food to all people who need to self-isolate, then I’d like to see the government step in to organise food deliveries.
“FoodBank was able to coordinate a similar effort at short notice during our recent bushfires. We need to make it easy for people to be safe.”
Shadow Minister for the NDIS Bill Shorten, agreed with community concerns that a coronavirus plan was desperately needed for people with disability.
Labor strongly advocated for disability carers to get the same provisions as aged-care workers, as they are similarly paid and face major risks from coronavirus.
According to People with Disability Australia, over 70 national, state and territory disability organisations came together with community advocates to urge the National Cabinet to take action.
— Nadya Labiba @nadrlabiba
Sally’s* real name has not been used, at her request.