Disability advocates are alarmed at the idea Australia needs to “learn to live with COVID”, saying that could mean a life of isolation and even death for many people with disability.
- Many people with disability, as well as workers in the sector, are struggling to book COVID-19 vaccinations
- The federal government has established 24 disability vaccination hubs around Australia
- Advocates say living with COVID-19 before widespread vaccination would mean sentencing people “to a life of exclusion”
Services provider Achieve Australia said the only way forward was for everyone to be vaccinated, but it continued to feel “forgotten” as its disabled clients and staff were still unable to get the jabs.
Chief executive Jo-Anne Hewitt said she was “alarmed” at recent comments from some politicians and the business community about the need to live with COVID-19 in the community.
“I do understand that opening up the economy is incredibly important but people with disability already face extreme barriers to inclusion and isolation,” Ms Hewitt said.
“The idea of letting COVID rip in the community actually sentences people to a life of exclusion.”
Achieve Australia runs group homes across NSW for about 300 people with profound disabilities, but only 80 have received a first dose of the vaccine.
The not-for-profit organisation has encouraged its 1,300 staff to get vaccinated by offering $50 supermarket vouchers as an incentive.
Ms Hewitt said the initiative would cost the organisation tens of thousands of dollars, but it was needed.
Western Sydney resident Carmen Martin has been unable to see her 53-year-old brother Louie for weeks, as his group home run by Achieve is in isolation due to the current lockdown.
“It’s breaking our heart,” Ms Martin said.
“We picked him up every single weekend but now with COVID there’s so many times we haven’t been able to, so many months [during the pandemic], and it’s just shocking.”
Ms Martin said while the staff at Achieve Australia were wonderful to Louie, and he could get outside during the lockdown because his home was on an acreage, he really needed his family.
“It means everything to him and it means everything to us,” she said.
Ms Martin filled out a form in March for Louie to be vaccinated. While he received a booking at the mass vaccination hub in Homebush, this was not suitable.
She said that Louie, who lives with severe cognitive delay and Down syndrome, needed a doctor and nurse to come to him at his group home.
“My brother and the people who live with him aren’t the kind of people who can stand in a line, be patient and wait,” Ms Martin said.
“They need the carers that they know, they need family, they need someone that understands them to be with them at this time. They don’t need more stress.
“He really needs to be vaccinated to have a normal life so that he can go back into the community, he can come home to us and we can see him.”
Disability vaccine hubs a ‘calm’ way for people to get vaccinated
While many people with profound disabilities cannot visit mass vaccination hubs, and will need home visits from doctors to get the vaccine, some specially designed services are helping.
Specific disability vaccine hubs were announced in early June and are one of many ways participants in the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) and their support workers can be inoculated.
Provider Life Without Barriers was among the first to open two hubs, one in Dandenong in Victoria and the other in Newcastle in New South Wales.
Chief executive Claire Robbs said while there was still a “long way to go”, vaccination rates among clients and support workers were “a lot higher” than before the hubs were introduced.
“The bookings were a bit slow to begin with because it was all new and a bit confusing for people,” she said.
“As soon as we reached out to people, made some calls and explained how it worked then we had a great response.”
Accessible features of the hubs include dedicated parking spots, soft lighting and individual cubicles so people can receive the shots in private.
Ms Robbs described the process of visiting a disability-specific hub as a “calm” and “gentle” experience.
“There are no crowds and we always make sure that we book support workers that know the clients really well,” she said.
“It’s not a bright medical environment, it’s all quite calm and actually almost as homely as you can get a hub to be.”
A spokesperson for NDIS Minister Linda Reynolds said the government had now established 24 disability vaccine hubs in all states.
Some of the hubs will be short term and will move location to service the greatest need of people with disability and their carers.
Support worker Vaughn Matthews went along to the Newcastle disability vaccine hub with his client Raelene Reid who lives with intellectual disability.
Together they got their shots and said it was a quick and easy process.
Mr Matthews works with various people in group homes and said supporting clients with their personal care meant social distancing was challenging.
“You might be assisting someone with showering or dressing and you need to break that 1.5 metre distance,” he said.
“If we can keep them safe in the process by being vaccinated and staying safe yourself, then that’s the best way.”
Ms Reid, who received her second dose of the vaccine, said she felt “really good”.
She has been missing seeing her family and friends and going out to lunch with them.
“I can’t wait till we all get to live … the way we used to live without the COVID,” Ms Reid said.
She encouraged others to get the jab.
“I would have it done because the sooner we all get it done, the sooner we can go back to normal,” she said.