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Uncovering the Truth: Our COVID Stories

OPSEU Disability Rights Caucus, Caucus des personnes handicapees du SEFPO

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed longstanding inequities that have systematically challenged the physical, social, economic, and emotional health of racial and ethnic minorities and other equity-seeking groups that are bearing a disproportionate burden of COVID-19.

Join OPSEU/SEFPO’s Equity Committees and Caucuses as they launch ‘Uncovering the Truth: Our COVID Stories’ – a series of stories/statements discussing the impact of COVID-19 on the health and wellbeing of various equity-seeking groups, and displaying how immediate action is critical to reduce growing COVID-19 inequalities among the people known to be at a disproportionate risk.

Impact of COVID-19 Pandemic on Persons with Disabilities

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought profound difficulties to people with disabilities, even something as simple as the wearing of masks has created fundamental challenges.

Masks are very important in stopping the spread of COVID-19 but are a barrier for those with a hearing impairment, both in and outside the workplace.

Depending on the severity of the hearing loss, communication can be more difficult. Some people can no longer read lips or facial expressions.  It is already difficult to hear individuals through the mask but questioning what a co-worker may be saying makes it even more difficult.  For those who wear hearing aids or cochlear implants, they face significant problems to ensure the mask is worn securely.  Some employers have purchased the clear mask, however, they’re not always available because they’re not mandatory.

Another issue surrounding masks is the fact that some people with disabilities can’t wear one due to medical reasons.  This can mean they are judged and pointed out when they are out in the community, further adding to their anxiety.

A huge barrier that persons with disabilities confront daily in the workplace is the approval of appropriate accommodations. Most employers don’t provide such rights, even though the Ontario Human Rights Code is clear that an employer has a duty to accommodate until undue hardship. Some people with a disability are at a greater risk of becoming severely ill.  Most are in precarious jobs and do not have the option of working from home or have any paid benefits for this type of leave.

COVID-19 has also affected our neighbourhoods – small businesses are disappearing and food banks are overwhelmed by those struggling to feed their families.  Persons with disabilities rely heavily on the services like food banks and other community supports.  The benefits they receive from the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) or Ontario Works (OW) are not enough to even cover their rent and hydro.  Access to these meal programs can also be a barrier for some since they are not always easily accessible for persons with disabilities. Without safe transportation, money for a taxi or a support person to bring them to the meal program, they end up being left behind.

Additionally, people with disabilities are affected by the general scaling back of community events and restaurants. For those who have mental health issues, symptoms have heightened during this time since social gatherings are limited, and many are required to isolate. Some things have come to a halt and this further hampers the needs of persons with disabilities.

For persons with disabilities, COVID-19 has created a home environment that brings about more fear compared to people without a disability.  Our daily lives have been thrust into changes that most of us were unprepared for.

Working from home has become the new norm.  Many workers have discovered that this is possible, but people with disabilities may not consider their homes suitable as a workplace.   For example, most people with disabilities do not have the appropriate adaptive equipment suited for their disability to work from home. If they have a child or dependent who relied on community programs, they are most likely facing cancellations or severe limitations.  This is an enormous issue for people with disabilities because they now need more support in the home to look after children or dependents, and often it’s not available.

There has been added stress for disabled people who are a resident in a long-term care home.  On top of skyrocketing COVID-19 infection rates in some homes, people in these homes can’t see their family members or participate in any activities.

Moreover, the impact on congregate living settings has been alarming.  These are facilities where people, most of whom are unrelated, live or stay overnight and use shared spaces like sleeping areas, bathrooms, and kitchens.  They include but are not limited to shelters, group homes, correctional facilities, and children or youth residential settings.  Sadly, they see higher levels of community spread which makes the people who live there or rely on these services incredibly vulnerable.  Many are being cared for from trauma that range from alcohol and drug addiction to domestic violence.  As some of the most vulnerable, they need the necessary protections from COVID-19 so that they can continue to receive the treatment that they need in order to overcome the trauma that they are faced with.

We also must not forget about the workers who provide these essential services.  Many of them are OPSEU/SEFPO members.  It is therefore important to ensure that not only are these workers empowered to take proactive steps in protecting themselves and the residents but that they have access to the necessary mental health supports whenever they need it.

According to OPSEU/SEFPO’s recent Social Mapping Project (SMP), one in seven members identify with having a disability.  Mental health issues were prevalent, prior to COVID 19, and that has undoubtedly increased after eight months of restrictions. Job losses are higher than ever, and domestic abuse is on the rise. Every member of your family should have a mask on in public to protect everyone.  Long term care homes continue to report having massive COVID-19 cases among their staff and residents.

The federal government announced last June that people with disabilities would get one-time payments of up to $600 to cover extraordinary costs that people with disabilities face as a result of this pandemic. Clearly, it will take more than a few hundred dollars to remove additional barriers that COVID-19 has created.