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Report - Public hearing 5 - Experiences of people with disability during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic

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Report of Public hearing 5 - Experiences of people with disability during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic


In August 2020 the Royal Commission held a public hearing on the impacts of COVID-19 on people with disability.

It has prepared a report on this hearing, called ‘Public hearing 5: Experiences of people with disability during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic’.

This video is a summary of the key points from the report. The full report is available on our website.

Public hearing

At the hearing, the Royal Commission listened to people with disability about their experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic. The hearing also reviewed how the Australian Government looked after people with disability during the pandemic and to see what worked well, and what was missed. 36 witnesses and 4 organisations came to give evidence.

Australia has signed the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD). This means that the Australian Government has committed to consulting with people with disability. Also, the Australian Government must make sure that people with disability are OK when there is an emergency, such as COVID-19.

At the hearing, the Royal Commission investigated what the Australian Government did when COVID-19 started, and found a number of problems. The report also makes recommendations to fix these problems.

The early response

In the early stages of the pandemic, the Australian Government Department of Health did not consult with people with disability, and did not plan enough for people with disability. People with disability experienced:

  • stress and anxiety about contracting COVID-19 because there wasn’t enough personal protective equipment (PPE)
  • services suddenly closing
  • not being able to get medicine and food
  • confusion
  • isolation, and feeling forgotten, leading to possible mental health problems.

To fix this, the Australian Government should commit to make sure all government agencies that plan for emergencies also consult with people with disability and disability representative organisations and ask them what they need to stay safe during an emergency.  Also, it should fund them to be involved in those consultations.

The later response

In April 2020 the Australian Government established an Advisory Committee on the problems facing people with disability during the pandemic. Its members include people with disability and representative organisations. The Advisory Committee helped develop the Management and Operation Plan for People with Disability. This contains steps the Australian Government should take to protect people with disability during the pandemic.

The Advisory Committee should continue and have enough funding. After the pandemic is finished, the Advisory Committee or a similar group should operate in future emergencies.

First Nations people with disability

The Australian Government established an Advisory Group on First Nations people in March 2020, but its guidelines don’t say anything about First Nations people with a disability, and there is no one in the group from a First Nations disability organisation.

To fix this, the guidelines should talk about First Nations people with disability and the First Nations Advisory Group should include someone representing First Nations people with disability.

Guidelines for outbreaks

When an outbreak of COVID-19 occurs, eg in a group home for people with disability, it is very important to act quickly to make sure everyone is OK and to stop the virus spreading. This may include testing, isolating and looking after cases, or other things.

There are guidelines on what to do, but they are more suitable for nursing homes than disability accommodation. To fix this, the Department of Health should create guidelines specifically for disability accommodation.

Department of Health

In the Australian Government, Disability is not part of the Health Department. It is part of a different department. There is not enough collaboration between the parts of government that look after disability and health.

To fix this problem, the Department of Health should establish a unit responsible for planning for the health of people with disability, including when there is an emergency.

Testing and screening

At the beginning of the pandemic, it was difficult for some people with disability to get a COVID-19 test, for example, if they couldn’t get to a testing clinic. There was one story of a person who waited 9 days to do a test at home. During that time they had no support workers so they stayed in bed for the whole time.

The Management and Operational Plan says that accessible testing should be available for people with disability, that people with disability and their families and support workers should have priority for testing, that there should be accessible information about testing, for example in Auslan, and that support workers should know what to do if a person with disability needs a test contracts COVID-19.

The problems can be fixed by following the plan.

Independent advocacy

Organisations that represent people with disability often do advocacy work. For example, if a deaf person can’t get services, they might ask an advocate to help them get those services. Or they might advocate for a whole group of people, for example if there are no interpreters for important information on TV.

During the pandemic, there was a problem because these organisations became overwhelmed. So many people needed advocacy. They did not have enough funding to help everyone.

If there is another large outbreak of COVID-19, the Australian Government should provide extra funding for advocacy organisations.

Lack of data

The Australian Government knows how many people have contracted COVID-19 and how many people have died of COVID-19. However, we don’t know exactly how many of those people have a disability.

This is a problem because if we don’t know how many people with disability have contracted COVID-19 or how many have died from it, it is difficult to make plans around disability services and COVID-19. Also, the UNCRPD says that we need data to know how to help people with disability.

To fix this problem, the Australian Government should make sure that if someone contracts COVID-19, it is noted whether they have a disability, and also whether they are living in a group home. Also, the government should publish de-identified data every week, showing how many people with a disability have contracted COVID-19, recovered from COVID-19, or died from COVID-19.

The NDIS Commission and the NDIA

The NDIS Commission left service providers to decide if they would continue or close services. However, the NDIS Commission should have been more involved, for example working out who was at highest risk contracting COVID-19, checking to make sure staff are trained about COVID-19, and checking to make sure people were getting essential supports.

During the pandemic, the NDIA called many participants to check that they had the supports they needed. This might have been better if they had also helped participants to get PPE at the same time.

Disability workforce

Disability support workers are mostly casual and may work at many different locations. They may carry COVID-19 from one workplace to another.

When the pandemic started, disability services couldn’t access PPE from the National Medical Stockpile. Also, it was not clear if disability support workers were a priority for COVID-19 testing, like health care workers such as doctors and nurses.

The Australian Government should make sure that disability support workers have access to PPE and testing, both now and in the future.

Health rationing

If many people are sick at the same time, and a person with a disability needs a ventilator, many people with disability are concerned that maybe they will miss out because people think that the life of a person without disability is more valuable. Doctors in Australia have rules against this type of discrimination, but the Australian Government doesn’t have any official guidelines about this.

The Australian Government should publish guidelines saying that it is not ok to discriminate because of disability if you can’t treat everyone. The guidelines should also explain who gets a COVID-19 vaccine first, if one becomes available.