Advocates turn to online forum to highlight challenges people with disabilities face during COVID-19 crisis

Advocates turn to online forum to highlight challenges people with disabilities face during COVID-19 crisis

Organizations supporting vulnerable individuals and people with disabilities gathered online Tuesday to draw attention to the challenges disabled Ontarians are facing during the COVID-19 pandemic and called on the government to do more to support them.

"Government emergency planning must address the urgent needs of all those who will disproportionately bear this disease’s hardships," said Laura Kirby-McIntosh, who is the president of the Ontario Autism Coalition and moderated the online panel with AODA Alliance Chair David Lepofsky. She acknowledged that while governments at all levels are working "long days and nights on this crisis," there are various community groups they can turn to that are willing to help address the challenges people with disabilities face.

Lepofsky said his organization has tried in recent weeks to point out to the government where there is a need for action and offer solutions, and has also encouraged provincial officials to hold a virtual policy forum with disability advocates to discuss this.

Kirby-McIntosh said different segments of the province's disabled population are experiencing varying challenges, with the panelists pointing to concerns about accessing health-care services and testing, those who receive home-care and can't self-isolate, the particularly hard hit seniors in long-term care homes and children whose schools are shut.

"Seniors and people with disabilities are the most vulnerable to the dangers of the COVID-19 crisis," Kirby-McIntosh said. While self-isolating at home is "vital" to try to contain the virus, it also creates additional challenges for people with disabilities, she added. The necessary cancellation of school and daycare is tough on all kids, she noted, but it is "destroying" the routines many children with disabilities "desperately need." Then there are homeless people who don't have a place where they can self-isolate, she added.

Below are some of the concerns and asks from community groups and organizations.

Planning for the worst-case scenario

The provincial government is working on "last resort" plans for dealing with a major surge in hospital demand, but people with disabilities previously shared their concerns with QP Briefing that the "draft" document, as Health Minister Christine Elliott referred to it on Tuesday, doesn't explicitly say people with disabilities are entitled to equal care as neurotypical and able-bodied people.

Roberto Lattanzio, executive director of ARCH Disability Law Centre, a clinic that focuses on disability rights law, said the province's framework should centre on "Will the ventilator save your life? That’s it, nothing else." He said an explicit statement should be made in the document that ensures people with disabilities won't be "deprioritized" if tough decisions need to be made about who has access to a ventilator if supply gets low.

But Elliott tried to quell such fears on Tuesday. Speaking during a press conference alongside Premier Doug Ford, Elliott said she's aware of concerns from people with disabilities that "they would be cut out of treatment if we got to that point."

"That is certainly not what that document is meant to deal with, I would never allow that to happen," Elliott said. "People with disabilities are treated in the same way as everyone else, as they should be."

PPE needed for disabled Ontarians receiving home care

Wendy Porch, executive director of the Centre for Independent Living Toronto, said physical distancing is "impossible" for many individuals who need assistance from attendants — like personal support workers — in order to be able to live at home. This could include help with bathing, dressing, turning over on a bed to avoid bedsores or preparing meals.

Since many attendants are visiting several people in one day, including those in seniors' homes, they can be "community vectors" for COVID-19, said Porch, stressing that personal protective equipment (PPE) is important not only for the attendants, but for people with disabilities receiving these services.

"They have been saying, 'if one of us gets it, all of us are going to get this,'" she said.

Porch called on the government to work with organizations like hers to ensure people using such services can access PPE.

Porch also called on the government to give people with disabilities who might have difficultly getting to a COVID-19 assessment centre the option of "mobile testing," where they could be tested at their homes.

But before testing can even happen, there are other challenges people with disabilities are facing, said Barbara Collier, executive director of Communication Disabilities Access Canada. For those experiencing symptoms who have disabilities affecting their ability to communicate, Collier suggested the government set up a separate "hotline" that would include a text version, for example.

"What we have now is a system where there’s a hotline, that hotline is a telephone line; how are people who cannot use a phone able to use that system?" Collier asked.

The government's dedicated COVID-19 website tells people to call their primary care provider or Telehealth Ontario if they have symptoms.

Collier said 165,000 Ontarians have disabilities that affect their communication — either their understanding of what someone is saying or how they speak. She said people like speech pathologists would be helpful at all steps of the process — a "hotline," at assessment centres or in hospitals.

Thinking about accessibility when preparing surge capacity

As hospitals prepare for a surge in COVID-19 cases and work to boost capacity by setting up tents where patients can be treated or moving those waiting for spots in long-term care homes to hotels, accessibility needs to be a priority, said Thea Kurdi.

Kurdi, who is the vice-president of DesignABLE Environments, which works with clients to create accessible buildings and spaces, listed several ways to help those with disabilities access health care or other sites:

  • ensure there's a covered drop-off area close to an accessible entrance in case a person with a disability needs to go into the facility on their own
  • have an entrance that is at ground level with automatic doors and a wide enough doorway for those using wheelchairs, for example
  • have an "accessible path of travel" in the facility that allows people to practice physical distancing, such as one-way walking paths, and enough space for people to maneuver with assisted devices
  • if using a hotel, ensure the reception area is well lit so people can see clearly; have adequate signage, including in braille
  • washrooms should have power-operated doors, grab bars, accessible soap dispensers and taps, and automatic paper-towel dispensers. "All those things could be automated so people don’t have to touch anything," said Kurdi.
  • have accessible portable toilets for "tent cities"
  • for individuals being moved to hotels, lower the height of beds if necessary and ensure there is enough space beside a bed for assistive equipment
  • have motion-sensor night lights in rooms in case people become disoriented in a new space
  • place hand sanitizer, soap and and paper towel available at a reachable level

Additional supports for those on social assistance

Yola Grant, executive director of the Income Security Advocacy Centre (ISAC), called on the government to increase the financial support people can get through the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) or Ontario Works (OW).

In a letter to Minister of Children, Community and Social Services Todd Smith that was also signed by other organizations, ISAC noted that a single person can receive up to $733 per month through OW and up to $1,169 through ODSP.

"These rates are far below the poverty line of $1,767 per month, which contributes to food insecurity, poor health, and the current homelessness crisis — a recipe for disaster during COVID-19," ISAC said.

Palmer Lockridge, a spokesperson for Smith, said the government is allocating $52 million to its COVID-19 Social Services Relief Fund that would provide "additional resources directly to individuals and families in financial crisis."

He said for those on social assistance, the government is making "discretionary benefits more accessible for those who need additional support for extraordinary costs, while ensuring no disruption to current their current assistance." For single individuals this could mean up to $100 and for families, up to $200.

"This funding can be used to meet a broad range of needs, for example: cleaning supplies, transportation, food or clothing that individuals and families may require due to COVID-19," Lockridge said.

But Grant said these funds aren't enough and requires people on social assistance to ask busy caseworkers for this additional financing.

Accessing education tools

With elementary and secondary schools and post-secondary institutions moving to online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the biggest barriers for students with disabilities is that digital content and tools are not accessible, said Karen McCall, an accessible document design consultant and trainer.

"Just because they're on the screen doesn't mean that the adaptive technology like a screen reader or text-to-speech tool is going to be able to read it," she said.

Education Minister Stephen Lecce said in a statement to QP Briefing that "in partnership with school boards and educators, our aim is to ensure every child — irrespective of ability, geography or socio-economic circumstance — can learn safely while at home."

Lecce has held discussions with his advisory council on special education on how students and families can be supported; the council will be convening again tomorrow.

The government noted that the seniors and accessibility ministry had also asked members of the K-12 Standards Development Committee, of which Lepofsky is a member, about their availability to work remotely. This committee, along with others focused on different sectors, recommends actions the provincial government can take to remove barriers.

Sneh Duggal

Reporter, Queen's Park Briefing

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