Posted Thursday 3 December 2020
The International Day of People with Disabilities takes place on 3 December every year and was created by the United Nations to promote an understanding of disability issues, support the dignity, rights, and wellbeing of people with disabilities and highlight the benefits of integrating them into every aspect of political, social, economic and cultural life.
To mark this year's awareness day, staff and students from Kingston University's learning disabilities nursing department discuss how the coronavirus pandemic has affected those with learning disabilities mentally, physically, and socially.
"People with learning disabilities in the United Kingdom have been disproportionately affected by the Covid-19 pandemic," said senior lecturer in learning disability nursing Marina Russ, in response to a Public Health England report showing they are more than six times more likely to die from the virus than the general population. "This is in addition to the already startling health inequalities faced by people that lead to an average age of death that is 14-17 years younger than someone without a learning disability.
"The impact of lockdown and the restrictions of daily life have been felt acutely by this group and have left many of them more lonely and isolated than ever. Everyone has the right to live a full, active life, with support provided as necessary to maintain equity. To ensure inequalities are not perpetuated, structures and systems need to be designed for and by people with disabilities, so their needs are not seen as a peripheral concern."
Those views were echoed by masters student Carolyn Otasanya, who said the health inequality gap is widening. "People with learning disabilities have been hidden in plain sight for a long time – leading to disparity of health. Strategies should therefore be put in place to promote the expected level of quality care, which identifies and meets their individualised needs, while managing the behaviour and communication challenges that are associated with giving quality care.
"It is essential to address barriers such as perceived lack of time from staff, insufficient resources, and organisation factors within the health sector that may prevent this. All of this can help reduce the health inequality gap and increase the health equity for those with learning disabilities. This particularly vulnerable group have also, like all of us, been affected by lockdown. The adverse effect of social distancing and quarantining on their mental health will have been pretty damaging and is something that needs to be tackled."
Senior lecturer Dr Mark Brown said one of the key things that has gone under the radar during the pandemic is the restrictions on companionship and intimate relationships. "Having the opportunity to develop intimate relationships with another human being is a right we all possess and have the choice to make. However, for individuals with learning disabilities this can prove difficult. Frequently, they are faced with inadequate education, support, and the opportunity to meet other people looking for love and companionship.
"The arrival of the pandemic has led to the need for social distancing and the closure of social activities, causing many to become socially isolated and unable to develop or maintain intimate relationships. As we slowly enter the post-Covid world we need to concentrate on the rights of those with learning disabilities to have the opportunity to be in a loving relationship. We need to be more proactive and supportive to people around sexuality and relationships – they are not just for the general population and being disabled does not stop a person from loving another.
"Let us use this period of reflection to celebrate individuality and disability, and to more effectively support and work with those with learning disabilities to have the opportunity to love and be loved. Just like everyone else."
Second year undergraduate student Jessica Ball said she is concerned people with learning disabilities will be forgotten about once Covid-19 restrictions are lifted. "Life after lockdown for most will return to how it was before there were restrictions and we were limited with what we could do. Now imagine still having those restrictions, not ones imposed by a virus but by a world that doesn't meet your needs or support your independence – that is what is facing people with learning disabilities.
"That is why it is important to have an international day of people with disabilities because humanity is for all and this annual day raises awareness of people's rights. There's a famous quote ‘The problem is not the person's disability. The problem is society's view of the person's abilities' and that couldn't be truer – things need to change."