The Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability held hearings, running from 18-21 August, covering the impact of COVID-19 on people with disability and the response of the Australian Government to the pandemic.
Chair of the Commission, Ronald Sackville AO QC, opened the hearings by stating that the interim report, presented to the Governor-General, will still be delivered by 30 October 2020 despite COVID-19 cancelling hearings and other public events.
He added that the impact of COVID-19 has been significant and that people with disability have been at risk from the start.
“The impact of the pandemic on people with disability may not have received the same level of media coverage or public attention as the terrible loss of life in aged care facilities, but that does not diminish the severity or significance of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on people with disability."
Senior Counsel Assisting the Royal Commission, Kate Eastman, says that that there is a lack of information about the rates of infection or death due to COVID-19 for people with disability.
"There is no data or statistics that enable us as the community to understand or to assess the impact of COVID-19 on people with disability in Australia.”
Over the course of the week, the Commission heard from consumers, providers and peak bodies, about how COVID-19 has impacted on their lives and supports, highlighting concerns in areas such as domestic violence, casual workforce and Government response.
Increased domestic violence risk
Nicole Lee, board member for Safe Steps Family Violence Response Centre in Victoria and family violence survivor, told the Commission that the risk of family violence against people with disability has increased during the pandemic due to heightened stress levels.
She highlighted the fact that as many people with disability have been unable to access their usual supports or have cancelled non-essential supports, they may not be able to seek the help they need in the event of family violence.
“If a violent partner is in the home, people will be unable to access services on the phone safely.
“People will also have reduced opportunities to access help through interactions with people outside of the home."
Fear of infection from carers
Tammy Milne, a 55 year old mother who lives with a physical disability, told the Commission her fears of becoming infected due to the “casualisation” of the support workforce.
She relies heavily on outside help from a support worker to get food, cook and for daily care six days a week, but was left without support care for several days at the height of north-west Tasmania’s coronavirus lockdown.
“At 7 pm that night, we got a call from the provider. They told me that a family member of my support worker had been exposed to COVID-19, so my support worker was self-isolating.
“I did not hear until Sunday that my support worker had tested negative.
“During this time I went for four days without a support worker and I had to rely on a friend who could assist me as both my husband and I are unable to cook.”
Ms Milne says she and her husband experienced “a lot of unnecessary stress” about whether they had been exposed to the virus and that the lack of communication from the provider and the fact no support worker was rostered as a replacement put them "in a potentially dangerous situation”.
She said due to the casualisation of support workers, many work for multiple employers and were, therefore “seeing hundreds of clients and bringing that contact from hundreds of clients” into her home.
“I saw that as placing myself at 100x the risk, even though I was essentially self-isolating.”
Lack of education support for young people
AAB, the mother of a 12 year old girl with Down syndrome, who wished to remain anonymous, told the Commission that education services have always been lacking, but even more so during COVID-19.
Her daughter had recently made the transition to high school, and from the start of the year there had been challenges around funding and her daughter had not been receiving the support she required.
When her daughter's school shut down and moved to online learning because of the pandemic, AAB says she felt like her daughter was an afterthought.
“I think at the core of this there is some deeply rooted ableism where there is a view that students with disability are an add-on, a burden, that they belong somewhere else.
“It's pretty evident that my daughter is not a full member of her classroom. I mean, during the shutdown, she had zero contact with any of her peers. And I think this should be turned around and that students with disabilities should be made a priority rather than an afterthought.”
Mary Sayers, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Children and Young People With Disability Australia (CYDA), shared that the experiences of ABB’s daughter are not uncommon when it comes to children and young people living with disability.
CYDA conducted a survey five days after the World Health Organisation declared COVID-19 a pandemic, finding that students with disability were more isolated than their peers and were often not included in Zoom or virtual classrooms.
“There was also the significant reduction in the usual supports provided for students with disability”, Ms Sayers explained. "More than half had not had regular contacts from their education provider to ensure that the learning was accessible.”
Challenges in remote communities
The First Peoples Disability Network (FPDN) Deputy CEO June Riemer told the Commission people with disability are already living in poverty, but COVID-19 has escalated these issues, particularly when people are isolated and their support networks are overstretched.
According to Ms Riemer there is anecdotal evidence of people running out of food in remote communities, particularly along the New South Wales and Queensland border, due to border closures and lack of funds to travel long distances.
“People in these communities would normally cross the border for the easiest access to these essentials, however, due to the border closures people were no longer able to do this
“The impact of this can’t be underestimated as some people do not have the money to drive two-to-three hours to the nearest facilities within their state. These are often very remote communities with limited income and living in overcrowded housing.”
Ms Riemer also told the Royal Commission of a worsening situation in which children with disability were falling “well behind” in their education.
“What we have seen getting worse during this time, particularly in remote communities, is that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are now well behind academically because they did not have support networks or infrastructure to learn from home,” Ms Riemer said.
A lack of PPE and a casualised workforce
Claire Robbs, CEO, Life Without Barriers and Andrew Richardson CEO of Aruma Services told the Commission about the challenges providers experienced during the pandemic of a casual workforce and the lack of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).
“Within Aruma, we did not traditionally maintain a large central stock of high-grade PPE. So, N95 masks, face shields, full gowns, et cetera. We had basic stocks at each home as needed, but we did not have a centralised supply chain.
“I think it's one of the learnings for all of us out of this process is the need to efficiently maintain adequate stocks of high-grade PPE so that whenever there's an outbreak, be it hospital, age care, be it in disability support, there's sufficient access.”
Mr Richardson also told the Commission PPE stockpiles were difficult to access due to the stockpiles being opened to disability services at a later stage than other health and aged care services.
Ms Robbs told the Commission that although the challenges of having a casual workforce existed before COVID the pandemic has only made them worse.
“Within the pandemic, though, that really has been exacerbated, because when a house has a suspected or a positive case we often then have to isolate entire staff teams, which can be up to 12 people possibly.
"Then we have to be able to bring in additional staffing who have not had contact with that house and in that situation, we often do rely heavily on casuals and then those casuals are by means of the fact that they are casual and not permanently on a roster, often do work across several locations which we know is something we want to reduce.”
Ms Robb also highlighted the need for the disability sector to have a bespoke response for the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The disability sector is not a subsection of the aged care sector and although there are similarities, there are obvious differences as well and I think that really needs to be acknowledged at all levels of government.”