The majority of disabled people in Britain feel that their needs have been overlooked during the pandemic, new figures indicate, prompting calls for ministers to urgently address the disproportionate impact of coronavirus on the lives of those with disabilities.
Campaigners have warned that disabled lives are being “forgotten” after polling revealed that 65 per cent of respondents felt their rights had been negatively affected due to Covid-19, often leaving them unable to do basic things such as leave the house, eat and wash themselves.
The YouGov survey of more than 1,000 disabled people of working age (18-65), commissioned by the BBC, found that seven in 10 felt their needs had been “overlooked” since the start of the pandemic.
The findings come 25 years after the Disability Discrimination Act was passed in 1995. The act was designed to make it unlawful to discriminate against people in respect of their disabilities.
Disabled people accounted for almost six in 10 (59 per cent) of all deaths involving coronavirus between 2 March and 14 July, while making up 16 per cent of the population, according to data published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS).
Among those receiving care or support, 60 per cent of disabled people reported difficulty getting hold of at least one essential item such as personal protective equipment (PPE), medication or vital breathing equipment, according to the poll.
More than half (52 per cent) of disabled people who receive social care said a lack of support had meant they had been unable to do basic chores such as leave the house, eat, wash themselves, socialise or attend essential medical appointments.
This data comes after findings published in a report by National Voices in September revealed that during the first wave, a third of people living with multiple sclerosis (MS) had their healthcare appointments cancelled or delayed, while 70 per cent of people with Parkinson’s said their physiotherapy appointments had been cancelled.
Mary Douglas, who has MS and lives in the Scottish borders, told The Independent she felt disabled people had been “forgotten” during the coronavirus crisis.
The 68-year-old, who is chair of the MS Society’s Scotland council, said one of the worst impacts on her had been the closure of public toilets – which made it difficult for her to leave the house for long periods due to bowel and bladder issues caused by her MS – alongside the cancellation of hospital rehab appointments, which help with her mobility.
“Even when I go out now I’ve really got to be aware of where the toilets are. You’ve got to be able to reach them very quickly, and to find that they’re all closed – that’s quite horrendous. They should at least have kept disabled toilets open,” said Ms Douglas.
“I had an appointment scheduled with the MS nurse and an appointment for physiotherapy at the beginning of April. For both they rang me up and said I could no longer come in. Everything ceased, which has obviously affected my mobility.”
Ms Douglas said other disabled people she knew had been severely affected by the restrictions on meeting with other people, with many unable to venture out on their own, meaning that in areas where one can only meet with one other person at a time, it could be “very isolating”.
Calling on the government to show more awareness of the needs of different groups of people, Ms Douglas said: “They need to be aware that people with disabilities do have more needs than other people, and have been severely impacted by this.
“There’s been a lack of acknowledgment and a lack of coordination. It seems like they make all this guidance without actually thinking about how it will affect everybody. They don’t talk to people enough. They don’t ask what the problems are and consult to find out what people need.”
Raising the alarm about the financial problems facing many charities supporting disabled people, Ms Douglas added: “Many people rely on charities for support, but if they’re not able to provide that because of lack of money, you can’t just leave people hanging.”
Vicky Foxcroft, a Labour MP who wrote to the prime minister in September calling on him to urgently address the inequalities faced by disabled people during the Covid- 19 pandemic, accused the government of treating disabled people as an “afterthought” and urged ministers to improve the communications and support available as Britain faces a second wave of the virus.
“On the 25th anniversary of the Disability Discrimination Act, the government must commit to tackling increasing inequality disabled people face,” she added.
Kamran Mallick, chief executive of Disability Rights UK, said the YouGov figures “chimed strongly” with what the charity had heard from disabled people since the coronavirus crisis took hold.
He said that while initially there had been hope that the pandemic would lead to better consideration of the needs of disabled people, it had ultimately led to a “doubling down of difficulties”, putting them “at the bottom of the pile” for access to “everything necessary to continue living independent lives”.
Listing the issues faced by disabled people during the public health crisis, Mr Mallick said: “We know of life-threatening delays in the supply of drugs and vital medical treatment, thousands of people unable to get food and people given the choice between working for full pay in unsafe environments or switching to statutory sick pay, which is not enough to live on.”
He also expressed concern about an increase in mental health conditions as a symptom of prolonged isolation for shielders, and disabled people with mask exemptions being verbally and physically attacked for not wearing face coverings.
Philip Anderson, the head of policy at the MS Society, said it was “unacceptable” that people with disabilities were being disproportionately affected by Covid-19, and urged ministers to address this “growing chasm”.
He called for improved communication from government to prevent “dangerous and confusing last-minute changes” or advice based on “opaque evidence”, and provide health and care services with the funding they need to get through winter, as well as establishing a long-term programme that provides consistent support to those shielding.
“Twenty-five years on from the Disability Discrimination Act, it’s time the government stepped up to support vulnerable people through this crisis,” he added.
A government spokesperson said: “We understand this has been a particularly challenging time for disabled people and we remain committed to supporting them through this pandemic and beyond.
“Across government, we are working to support and protect disabled people, publishing advice and guidance, making £3.7bn available to local authorities to help address pressures on local services including adult social care, and pledging £750m to ensure charities can continue their vital work during the Covid-19 outbreak.
“That is why we have provided an extra £9.3bn-worth of support during the Covid-19 crisis supporting disabled people across the country to ensure they are not left behind.”
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