Virus exposes Indigenous disability gaps

August 20, 2020

A leading Indigenous disability advocacy body has been overwhelmed with requests for basic help and supplies during the COVID-19 pandemic, a royal commission has heard.

Damian Griffis, chief executive of the First Peoples Disability Network, said the virus has exacerbated existing inequalities in Australia.

He said the group has received phone calls from across the country from people who don’t have access to crucial items such as incontinence pads.

“Our staff have been overwhelmed, frankly,” Mr Griffis told the commission on Thursday.

Requests have ranged from urgent wheelchair repairs in remote communities to troubles accessing medication and food shortages.

“Some of our people with disability and their families, they make contact with us at an absolute crisis point,” Mr Griffis said.

“They’ve exhausted all the other avenues that they’re aware of. We’re not funded for that work, but we never turn anyone away.”

Mr Griffis said a 40-page Aboriginal coronavirus plan, drawn up by community organisations and the federal health department, made no mention of people with disability.

He called for the creation of an Aboriginal owned and operated disability individual advocacy scheme and a hotline tailored to meet the needs of disabled Indigenous people.

The body’s deputy CEO, June Riemer, said border closures have forced many in outlying communities to make long trips for groceries and medical help.

“Some people do not have the money to drive two to three hours to the nearest facilities,” she said in pre-recorded video evidence.

The commission also heard the disability sector was still grappling with personal protective equipment shortages and lack of infection control training.

Melbourne academic Anne Kavanagh said a survey of more than 350 workers across May and June found about one quarter had not done online infection control training.

Almost half wanted more training, while nine in ten respondents weren’t able to maintain physical distancing while working.

Professor Kavanagh said she flagged concerns with state and federal governments in April that plans around congregate care didn’t go far enough.

“Unfortunately what I feared in April is coming to bear. The plan doesn’t cover the current situation in Victoria and needs to be rapidly changed,” she said.

There was a lack of clarity around when PPE should be worn, and not enough targeted planning for people at particularly high risk, Prof Kavanagh said.

Data released this week revealed there are 129 active cases among National Disability Insurance Scheme participants – 41 participants and 88 workers – with most in Victoria.

Prof Kavanagh was among experts who warned the government in March of the dangers coronavirus posed to the disabled community, describing it in evidence as “the perfect storm”.

Andrew Richardson, boss of support service Aruma which has about 5400 clients nationwide, said the casualisation of staff caused him concern.

“We have knowledge of where they’ve worked on our account, you are never quite sure of where they may have worked on other people’s account,” he said.

“We are not legally able to oblige them to disclose that to us.”

Mr Richardson said during a national PPE shortage early in the pandemic, disability support work was “well down the pecking order” behind other health and aged care services.

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