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Disability community 'just an afterthought' in COVID-19 response

Co-founder of Sudbury not-for-profit says people with disabilities feeling overlooked

The government needs to step up and recognize that the disability community in Ontario is part of the vulnerable population, according to Nadine Law. 

Law is the co-founder of Access2all, a not-for-profit group that builds access ramps for Sudbury storefronts, and a regional service coordinator for Spinal Cord Injury Ontario. 

She is also a prominent disability advocate in the community. 

Her partner has quadriplegia, and Law has an immunodeficiency that put her in self-isolation for the last three weeks. 

She has never gone public with her own disability before, but the COVID-19 pandemic changed her mind. 

“We are part of a community that is often just an afterthought. My clients and I are not being recognized or taken care of,” said Law. 

“It wasn’t until this pandemic that I realized my voice had to get a little bit louder.”

Law has something that sounds like COVID-19, but is quite different. 

CVID, or common variable immunodeficiency, is an antibody deficiency that leaves the immune system unable to defend against bacteria and viruses. 

This results in recurrent, and often severe, infections that primarily affect the ears, sinuses, and respiratory tract. Law must receive plasma infusions every three days to boost her immune system. 

It also means that she cannot see her partner and fellow co-founder of Access2all, Daniel Lebrun, at all throughout the pandemic. Lebrun books personal support workers who visit him at home regularly. 

“He has so many attendants, and I can’t risk exposure,” said Law. 

“But this is the love of my life, and it’s like Russian roulette for him. He has a different PSW in for every booking, and he doesn’t know who they have come into contact with.”

Although the disability community has been deeply affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, both federal and provincial governments have done little to offer them recognition.  

In a press release issued on March 23, the Ontario government announced changes to the province’s emergency assistance program in response to COVID-19. 

“The government is making additional resources available to enable Ontario Works administrators to provide discretionary benefits to those currently in receipt of social assistance,” said the statement. 

“This funding can be used to meet a broad range of needs – including cleaning supplies, transportation, food or clothing – that individuals and families may be experiencing.” 

Individuals can access the benefits through the Ontario Works program, and Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) clients must contact their caseworkers to apply. 

But as Law said the emergency benefits are meager at best. 

Emergency benefits for COVID-19 related expenses are the same for both programs: up to $100 for single individuals and up to $200 for families.

While ODSP benefits are not likely to be disrupted by COVID-19, advocates have been saying for years that their fixed income is not enough on which to live.  

“Now, with the government providing funding for those who are out of work due to COVID-19, people are realizing that it costs at least $2,000 to live. People have been receiving a lot less than that on ODSP before this happened. They were doing without,” said Law. 

Law noted some essential supports servicing the disability community have been deemed non-essential by the Ontario government. 

The Assistive Devices Program, which is facilitated by the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care, has closed its offices due to COVID-19. 

The office is no longer able to accept or process applications for funding assistance and will not do so until the office reopens. 

Law said that the Assistive Devices Program provides a valuable service to those with disabilities, including paying up to 75 per cent of the cost of wheelchairs. 

Lebrun’s wheelchair alone costs $26,000, and it will be up for renewal in the next six months. 

Those who have a disability also face other challenges. 

Anyone who needs support from PSWs or other health-care workers at home is responsible for providing personal protective equipment (PPE), like masks and gloves, for workers. 

This is the same PPE required by health-care workers in hospitals who are caring for patients with COVID-19, of which there is a shortage in Canada and many parts of the world.  

Those too vulnerable to be out in public during a pandemic have to pay for grocery delivery, which can be costly.  

They must also buy costly medical equipment to support their quality of life, and they are vulnerable to social isolation. 

“When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau addressed the country on April 5, specifically the vulnerable sector, he addressed children and seniors, with no mention of those with disabilities,” said Law. 

“That was a slap in the face for the disability community and people are starting to feel even more vulnerable and are speaking out.”

More concerning to Law is that she feels the government’s treatment of those with a disability is reflective of a more pervasive prejudice. 

“If it comes down to it, will a disabled person be considered worth saving if the hospital is overrun with COVID-19 cases?” 

In her advocacy efforts, Law has reached out to Sudbury MP Paul Lefebvre and other officials who have been eager to address her concerns. 

“The Liberal government has worked hard the last five years to help advocate for the disability community. I am not sure why the government has dropped the ball on this issue,” she said. 

Lefebvre said he acknowledges that there are gaps in the programs rolled out by both provincial and federal governments. 

“I know that our government is actually working with different organizations that represent the disability community to see how we can fix those gaps,” he said. 

“We’re aware of the day-to-day challenges, and the vulnerabilities people with disabilities continue to face as the situation evolves. I have relayed the concerns that Law raised with the government.”

Although people on ODSP will remain on a fixed income, the government recognizes that COVID-19 has changed their lives in many ways.  

Different recommendations have been suggested, including waiving the $5,000 earning requirement for Canada Emergency Response Benefit.

Getting money to people without money, who have lost their jobs due to the pandemic, was the first phase of the government’s plan, said Lefebvre. Now that this phase has been rolled out, the government will begin addressing the unique needs of other populations.  

Lefebvre also expressed disappointment that some of the services relied on by those with disabilities have been suspended or deemed non-essential during the pandemic. 

“I was really uncomfortable hearing that because we have been really focused on disability inclusion in everything that we do,” he said. 

“We need to do more. These voices are very important and we are listening to them intently, and as we move forward, we will adapt the programs we have to ensure that it works for people who are vulnerable.” 


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About the Author: Colleen Romaniuk, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Colleen Romaniuk is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, a Government of Canada program, at the Sudbury Star.
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