Rick Hansen is an advocate for people with disabilities and the founder of the Rick Hansen Foundation.
Canada has been completely disrupted by the devastating effects of COVID-19. As we address one of the greatest challenges our country has faced in decades, many people with disabilities are at a higher risk of contracting the virus and face potentially serious complications.
With an aging population and one in five Canadians living with a disability, it’s imperative that we ensure barriers are removed at every level of our response.
The reality is that many people with disabilities, and many seniors, live in isolation every day. As our society collectively implements physical distancing measures, we are inadvertently introducing Canadians to what many people with disabilities are already confronted with daily.
With remote work, online classes and virtual conferences becoming the new normal, we see employers, educational institutions and communities quickly adapting to accommodate an unexpected situation. The measures we might have once dismissed as too costly or cumbersome to accommodate for a person with a disability, an immune-compromised individual or someone with anxiety are now simply the way we all do business. In this new normal, we see what’s entirely possible, and that this flexibility benefits everyone.
Self-isolation brings its challenges to all of us, but it adds another layer of complexity for many people with varying temporary and permanent disabilities. While ordering your groceries online may seem like the right thing to do when practising physical distancing, consider that the increased volume of online orders means that grocery stores may have a four-week delivery wait time. People with disabilities who depend on online deliveries can’t afford to wait that long to receive their necessities.
I recently listened to a podcast in which Amy Amantea, a blind actor and artist in self-isolation in Vancouver noted, “we do a disservice to our most vulnerable people by getting caught up in the whole paranoia.” She urges people to simply buy what’s needed when visiting the grocery store. Consider that an individual who relies on their disability cheque doesn’t receive it until the end of the month, and by the time they make it to the store many of the basics they’re looking for could be out of stock.
Opening grocery stores an hour earlier is an example of a policy to help the most vulnerable in the community get access; however, it still doesn’t mean that everyone can. Ms. Amantea points out that a quadriplegic individual who needs attendant care to get ready may not have access to assistance early in the morning. The Rick Hansen Foundation is part of Include Me, a national coalition of over 200 disability stakeholders who are working on key recommendations to the federal government to ensure a cross-disability lens in their response to COVID-19. These leaders have been working tirelessly to advocate for an inclusive and equitable response.
Leadership also starts at the top. It’s helpful when all announcements from our governments and public health agencies are consistently communicated in the appropriate formats for people with visual, hearing and cognitive disabilities. It’s encouraging to see leaders across the country delivering their messages in plain language and incorporating accessibility features such as sign language, captioning and relay services. This inclusive approach has a positive impact on everyone.
Many of us already feel the financial hardship of the pandemic, which also has an immediate trickle-down effect for people with disabilities, their caregivers and their families. Whether it’s lost income for family members stepping in to fill the gap of a caregiver or staff shortages in group homes, we need to ensure there is immediate financial aid available in the form of extended EI caregiver benefits.
The lessons learned from the courage, determination and resiliency of people who are struggling to deal with situations like this in their everyday lives can help us reach that higher bar. Just like everyone else, many people with disabilities, including seniors, want to be connected and included, but some are not able to do so.
The day will come when we’re able to physically reconnect, be fully included and return to our usual routines. When that day arrives, let’s make sure we remember this experience. Let’s continue to connect with those who are struggling through a culture of exclusion. Together we can ensure that no Canadian is left behind.
Kindness, compassion and simply reaching out to make sure that every Canadian does not feel alone during these challenging times can go a long way. This is the hallmark of the spirit and values that Canada is built on.
This will challenge us as a nation, but together we can model the way. Together we will get through this.
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