People With Disabilities, Services and COVID-19

The disability service sector is providing supports to millions of people with intellectual disabilities. Most of the people being supported are especially vulnerable in times of crisis – a fact which is clearly outlined in the United Nations Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), Article 11 – Situations of Risk and Humanitarian Emergencies. Article 11 of the CRPD cites the obligation of state parties to undertake “all necessary measures to ensure the protection and safety of persons with disabilities in situations of risk, including situations of armed conflict, humanitarian emergencies and the occurrence of natural disasters.”

Our collective role (government and service providers) is to provide required advocacy and support – and the current situation has not mitigated that obligation. 

During the current state-mandated protocols around self-isolation, limiting contact with others and supporting each other at a distance, people with intellectual disabilities can be disproportionately impacted. Issues such as poverty, limited social networks, difficulties with problem solving and communication and higher rates of chronic health concerns can all leave this population far more vulnerable than the rest of us would experience.

These facts are made clear in the UN CRPD because historically, in times of crisis, people with disabilities have been ‘left behind’ – a euphemism which carries with it all varieties of imaginable tragedy. 

This is not the time for disability service providers to be laying off staff – in fact, every person in the sector should be essentially ‘on-call’ and ready to support vulnerable people in whatever ways are necessary. It’s possible that the COVID-19 pandemic will come under some semblance of control and the people we collectively serve will return to their regular support needs – in which case there is no rational benefit to an entire sector scrambling to find or replace laid-off workers in an HR recruitment and on-boarding crisis.  A worse scenario may also unfold, where our vulnerable populations and sector will become impacted more deeply by this pandemic and we will need all hands on deck to provide essential services and social support to people with disabilities. In either case, mass layoffs of staff providing essential services to a vulnerable sector are not rational or proactive strategies.

The disability services sector should be effectively ‘re-purposing’ staff as required to ensure that the most vulnerable are safe and having their needs met – while also proving very important social and emotional support to people whether that’s in person (with safeguards) or virtually. Funders should be maintaining existing service provider contracts with the understanding that the current circumstances require some alternative support strategies. This is essentially what the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities states – based on lessons we’ve already learned ‘the hard way.’ Please advocate to funders for this essential service – and keep your most important resource – your staff – engaged and available so that you can respond with agility during these unpredictable times.

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