COVID-19 has caused stress and fear among many Australian workers. But for those living with a disability, the threat of the pandemic was heightened even further.
Disability advocates met with decision-makers in Canberra last Tuesday to highlight the crisis that people living with a disability have been facing. The advocates pressed the case for greater support and protection for the disabled community and those working with the community.
People With Disability Australia president Sam Connor was part of the delegation that went to Canberra to lobby for stronger protective measures.
She told On the Job how the pandemic posed challenges that proved perilous for her community to navigate.
“The meetings were all about making sure people with disabilities and their workers, and families can stay safe from COVID,” Connor said.
“We don’t have a choice about if we are going to be exposed to COVID or not if we are in receipt of daily care.”
“We need to have personal protective equipment (PPE), we need to have Rapid Antigen Tests (RATs), and we need to make sure that if we’re self-directing our NDIS funding that our workers are safe as well,” she said.
The Australian Council of Trade Unions has thrown its weight behind the campaign with a list of demands including:
- Personal Protective Equipment – including masks and Rapid Antigen Tests (RATs), and oximeters – must be free and accessible for all people with disability and their support workers.
- People with disability need support workers, even when the people who usually visit them get sick.
- NDIS workers who are exposed to COVID-19 at work must be supported to isolate without losing income or drawing down on their annual leave or personal leave balances.
- COVID-19 workforce retention payments for the NDIS workforce must be immediately introduced.
- Quick easy-to-access Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) tests are vital.
ACTU president Michele O’Neil called for an instant response from the Morrison government to the problems facing people with disability and the supporting workforce.
“The Morrison Government has failed people with disability and the people who care for them on the acquisition and provision of vaccines, PPE and RATs,” she said.
“They need to hear from, and work with, those affected by their failures in disability care to come up with a plan which protects everyone in the system.”
“Disability workers are falling ill at an alarming rate and workplaces are becoming unsafe and essential services and being compromised. The Morrison Government must address this workforce crisis and provide immediate support to the disability sector,” O’Neil said.
Sam Connor agreed that the workforce crisis in the disability sector had reached a critical point – both for workers and the people they support.
“With so many people becoming sick from COVID, we’re just as likely to die from lack of support as we are from COVID itself,” she said.
Under current NDIS arrangements, recipients who don’t fall under the category of Supported Independent Living are expected to use their own funding to pay for RATs and P2 and N95 masks – both for themselves and the workers who look after them.
The ACTU has called for support workers, carers and all people with disability to have easy access to the National Medical Stockpile so people can make sure they are protected and don’t spread the virus.
“It’s just ridiculous that you have to make a choice between staying safe and staying alive, or being able to get out of bed on the weekend or to have a shower,” Connor said.
“We want to make sure all in those communities are safe. It shouldn’t be at their personal expense to receive basic protection.”
Connor emphasized that support workers needed greater protection too.
“These frontline workers are assisting some of the people who are the most vulnerable to the virus,” she said.
“They’re essential workers, they’re as essential as our nurses and doctors and, and we need to make sure that they are safe, and that there are the resources to keep them safe, so that they can keep us safe as well.”