Covid-19 another example of too many mixed results for New Zealand's disabled

1:23 pm on 21 May 2020

Analysis- Covid-19 will prove to be an interesting historical footnote for New Zealand's disability community which should surely provide even further impetus for better standards of safety, health, and design.

disability, wheelchair,

Covid-19 should surely provide even further impetus for better standards of safety, health, and design, writes Michael Pulman. Photo: Unsplash / Yomex Owo

For a sector so often divided, the end goal of supporting the nation's most vulnerable usually remains the same, and that's perhaps the biggest lesson to take from all this.

Having to pivot quickly, disability support providers showed some wonderful examples of collaboration, good will, and hard work in what was a quick and difficult transition into lockdown.

Using digital technologies such as Zoom and Skype, national groups representing New Zealand's 1.1 million disabled people were inventive about how they kept in contact with their communities, taking what is often a face-to-face process and moving it online.

The Disabled Persons Assembly had their weekly "Bubble Hui" to check in with disabled people around the country, Deaf Aotearoa worked with TVNZ and Kordia to implement an informational television channel in full New Zealand Sign Language, and the hard work of getting news and information into accessible "easy read" formats was formally acknowledged by the United Nations as a promising practice.

Sign-language interpreter Alan Wendt translates during a press conference at Parliament on April 05, 2020. New Zealand was placed in complete lockdown and a state of national emergency was declared on Thursday 26 March to stop the spread of COVID-19 across the country.

Sign-language interpreter Alan Wendt translates during a press conference at Parliament on 5 April. Photo: Pool / Getty

But there were also problems, and it further exposes the flaws that have long pained the disability support system, with feedback from the disability community pointing to a greater need for the establishment of proper safeguards.

Two of the most common identified issues were around the availability of PPE (personal protection equipment) and guidance around paying staff.

In particular, there was confusion for people on IF (individualised funding) about paying their staff who opted to stay away during lockdown. For many on IF, the government's wage subsidy was not available, leaving some difficult decisions to make in an already stressful time of uncertainty.

Patsy Wakefield, a full-time wheelchair user from Wellington, was forced to pay staff not working during the lockdown out of her own personal care support budget that was set aside for day-to-day care.

Wakefield, 62 and an IF user since 2010, said her priority was ensuring all staff were paid, opting to worry about how that impacted the provision of her future support at a later date.

"The issues around my supports were that it took the ministry weeks to confirm if I could pay isolating staff, in the end we couldn't get the wage subsidy so I decided to pay them fully and worry about my support budget deficit later," Wakefield said.

Frustrated with the Ministry of Health's response to the wider disability community, Wakefield reached out to her support provider by sending an email to the chief executive directly, expressing her concerns after having little guidance initially.

Shortages of PPE were also a big problem in some areas, forcing many disability support providers to hastily try to import PPE stockpiles of their own, with mixed results.

Some disabled people had to wait weeks for any PPE to be delivered, compromising their "in bubble" supports, while other support workers who were provided PPE questioned the quality of the equipment.

In late March, some support workers also revealed they had been sewing their own face masks in a bid to keep working.

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Paula Tesoriero. Photo: Supplied

Disability Rights Commissioner Paula Tesoriero, who called on by the government to change official advice on masks shortly after the country went into lockdown, said she had been impressed with the quick response to the Covid-19 crisis by the sector as a whole.

"I think the disability sector has responded very well and very quickly under extremely trying and unprecedented circumstances, issues affecting the disability communities have been channelled quickly and repeatedly to decision-makers and the disability sector has been represented on many cross-agency forums," Tesoriero said.

In the eyes of many, Covid-19 has further reiterated the importance of cross-government collaboration at a time of crisis.

For the disability community specifically, reflections on a job well done should quickly turn to plugging what are some glaring holes in the system.

Questions about the official responsibilities for individualised funding providers were already on the cards prior to this crisis, those questions that must surely be fast tracked now.

In the case of a future crisis, or even a return to alert level 4 should the nation endure a second wave of the Covid-19 coronavirus, does the responsibility to ensure the supply of PPE for disabled people rest on the individuals themselves or the providers they work with?

That's just one of the questions those working on the ground are asking in the wake of these past six weeks.

The commissioner said that the lockdown had exposed existing inequalities experienced by disabled people, saying that the gains on the information distribution front must be carried over.

"As a sector and within our communities there will be gains made during this time, or good practice that we should build on, and equally this crisis has exposed the existing inequities experienced by disabled people that must be resolved," she said.

What is crucial now is that some of the lessons learned during this difficult time are carried over.

A disability sector that is together, united, innovative, and bold in its approach can do great things in a very short period of time.

What lies ahead is undoubtedly more uncertainty, most likely even more financial constraints which may well throw a spanner into the works on existing projects, but there are lessons to be learned here.

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