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Living in lockdown during a pandemic is socially tough for anyone. When you have a disability, the number of challenges increases.
What if you don’t have access to the internet? Or don’t have the support you need to set up a computer to Zoom with your family and friends? How do you maintain social contact?
While some have dubbed COVID-19 ‘the great equaliser,’ the reality is far different, says Dr Jo Watson, a senior lecturer in Disability and Inclusion at Deakin University. ‘What it’s done is it has highlighted the cracks in the system.’
She says many people with disabilities – particularly those with intellectual disabilities – only have a very small social network to begin with, and are more at risk of being stuck alone at home without the support they need. ‘People with disabilities can be very isolated at this time.’
Another thing to consider is that for many people with an intellectual disability, understanding the world is already difficult, Dr Watson says.
She says if someone is used to a certain group of staff, say in a group home, they become very reliant on those people. ‘But suddenly you’re not allowed to come out of your bedroom, you’re not allowed to go and have coffee and everyone you interact with is wearing this weird mask and you don’t understand what’s happening.’
Many people with disabilities, such as those who are visually impaired, also depend on touch, Dr Watson says.
‘I’m working with a man who has an intellectual disability and he’s blind … and he touches, that’s what he does. He feels your hair and feels your face and he can’t do that. He has lost a really important means of understanding his world.’
'But suddenly you’re not allowed to come out of your bedroom, you’re not allowed to go and have coffee and everyone you interact with is wearing this weird mask and you don’t understand what’s happening.'
Dr Jo Watson,
School of Health and Social Development, Deakin University
The question of human rights is an important one. It is important that human rights are being respected during the pandemic, particularly during snap lockdowns.
It’s a problem Deakin’s Disability and Inclusion team are trying to find solutions to as part of a new research project exploring how disability service providers in Victoria are responding to COVID-19.
Dr Watson says the project will gather information, both from providers and people with disabilities, on how people’s human rights and autonomy are faring amid tighter coronavirus restrictions.
In a non-COVID world, people with intellectual disability have regular visitors, including advocates, therapists and other supporters. Dr Watson is a speech pathologist as well as researcher at Deakin.
It could be something as simple as setting up a regular cup of tea over Zoom.
That’s what Dr Watson and her family are doing with her sister Catherine, who has an intellectual disability and is also legally blind.
‘She has one support worker who’s prepared to go in with her PPE (personal protective equipment), and so she’s working alongside me and my other sister who’s in Gippsland,’ she says.
‘What we’re doing is every second day; we are trying to have a cup of tea at three o’clock. That cup of tea might just be three minutes, but it’s often that’s all she needs, just a quick touch base.’
Dr Watson says no matter what our circumstances, connection is one of those things that make us all human. ‘For people with disabilities already their networks are so small, and so we need to make sure their small networks are not eroded even more.’
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