Canada isn't ready to deal with influx of those disabled from COVID-19: advocates
TORONTO -- Based on what disability advocates have seen so far, Canadian cities aren’t ready for the influx of people temporarily or permanently disabled from COVID-19. Long-term effects include breathing problems, mobility limitations from fatigue, and neurological and sleeping difficulties.
“This is a whole new source of disability,” Mary Ann McColl, academic lead for the Canadian Policy Disability Alliance and an epidemiologist at Queens University, told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview.
COVID-19 long haulers, as they’re being called, could be dealing with long-term conditions such as neurological problems, pulmonary fibrosis, inflammation of the heart, and renal insufficiency.
“And given that these conditions typically have disabilities associated with them, then it stands to reason that there will be a group of people who acquire new disabilities as a result of having COVID,” McColl said.
Regina-based disability activist John Loeppky told CTVNews.ca in a video interview that Canadian cities and provinces “aren’t prepared for the disabled people that they have… let alone the increase that will undoubtedly come from the COVID-19 pandemic.”
While long-term health effects are still being examined, a recent study published by The Lancet found most hospitalized COVID-19 patients had lingering symptoms, six months after hospitals discharged them -- which is in line with mounting anecdotal evidence and observational reports.
One in five Canadians currently has at least one disability and, with 10 per cent of COVID-19 patients having lingering symptoms from “long COVID,” advocates said newly disabled Canadians aren’t entering spaces that have put accessibility top of mind traditionally.
“I think it’s going to be exacerbated a great deal,” author and disability activist Amanda Leduc told CTVNews.ca, explaining Canada has a “terrible history” when it comes to ensuring accessibility and social inclusion of people with disabilities.
“You want people to participate. You want people to feel valued and the way you do that is making sure everyone’s needs are met,” Leduc said, adding that COVID-19 has only amplified the long-standing idea that accessibility isn’t a niche concern.
“We all have different needs. Disabled people’s needs are not ‘special.’”
ADVOCATES CALL FOR MORE SICK DAYS
“It’s quite easy to conceive of a situation when you have someone who’s been suffering from the long-term effects of COVID-19 who might have difficulty, for example, getting time off from work or trying to get accommodations because they don’t look ‘disabled,’” Leduc said.
Leduc said solutions such as guarantee paid sick leave or more substantive disability payments would help not only the disabled community but also low-wage and essential workers who’d then have the job security they need to stay home if they’re potentially infected with COVID-19.
Other advocates argued people with some sort of disability are depending on better polices.
“We don’t have a choice but to be ready,” Sarah Jama, the co-founder of the advocacy group Disability Justice Network of Ontario, told CTVNews.ca in a video interview.
Jama and others argued that existing COVID-19 disability programs, including the one-time $600 payment to persons with disabilities, the Disability Tax Credit or the Canada recovery sickness benefit -- which provides $450 after taxes per week for up to two weeks -- are insufficient for disabled people.
A report from August found more than half of Canadians with disabilities surveyed were struggling to make ends meet because of the financial fallout of the COVID-19 crisis.
“The people being left behind this pandemic, and throughout the history of this country, are and have been and will continue to be [the] disabled unless we redefine what it means to have a right to live a valued life,” Jama said, referring to the even more vulnerable subset of disabled in long-term care homes, prisons, and living on the streets.
“Our country does not are or value people outside of our ability to produce… if I can’t hold a job, or if I can’t work a 9-5 like everyone else, or if I’m an injured worker I will be left behind. I will be sentenced to poverty wages, living on social assistance, I’ll be sentenced to housing that is not accessible,” Jama said.
She said the pandemic is a chance for a “cultural shift” to introduce programs, such as universal basic income, which don’t centre government assistance on a person’s ability to work.
EXPANDING ACCESSIBILITY WILL HELP EVERYONE: LEDUC
Leduc echoed the need for more holistic approaches and a more nuanced view of what constitutes a disability, so people realize they may already be, or will someday be, in that category.
Instead, she urged policymakers to see COVID-19’s long-term effects as more reason to see everyone on a spectrum -- with some disabilities hitting later in life, being more debilitating than others, or not aren’t always identified by wheelchair use.
“And the country has not done the work to show disabilities come in all sorts of shapes and forms,” Leduc said.
Loeppky noted that far too often provincial and federal governments fail to consult and actually listen to solutions from disability groups, and that needs to change.
He cited the recent example of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance criticizing the Ontario government for its triage policy in hospitals for being discriminatory against patients with disabilities.
Loeppky said listening to disabled people is going to be doubly crucial given there are more people identifying with having a disability overall.
In her 2019 book, McColl wrote the rates of people with disabilities are rising in the developed countries due to a number of factors, including: populations aging; more people surviving once-deadly conditions; better data collection; and, more people feeling comfortable to report they have a disability.
Leduc said changes to public policy are always possible but the political will needs to be there. She noted the norm of paid temporary sick days due to disease and infrastructure to work from home were “the kinds of accommodations that disabled people have been asking for years.”
“There is this prevailing perception that disability only affects a few people. So accessibility and accommodations are only made for a few select individuals,” she said.
“But when you make an accessible world, it’s a world that everyone can participate in and enjoy.”