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Disability, health and the coronavirus: Why implementation of the plan is urgently needed

Introduction by Croakey: The Federal Department of Health last week released the Management and Operational Plan for COVID-19 for People with Disability, which says the novel coronavirus presents a significant and unprecedented challenge for many people with disability, including children and young people, the people who support them, and the disability sector as a whole.

Despite those risks, it took nearly three months after the first novel coronavirus case was diagnosed in Australia for the plan to be delivered.

That’s not, it seems, due to any lack of urgency from the advisory committee, which, only established on 3 April 2020, took just a week in collaboration with Federal Government agencies to develop the plan, which was put to the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee, adopted by National Cabinet, and released on 18 April.

In the post below, leading disability advocacy and Advisory Committee member Dr George Taleporos says the plan is designed to make sure people with disabilities get the health care they need to keep safe and well during the pandemic, in the face of so many barriers.

But, he says, implementation is what really matters, which is why an early failure by the Health Minister to acknowledge a key component was both worrying and disappointing.

Taleporos’ piece was first published by Every Australian Counts, and is republished here with permission.

His fellow Advisory Committee member, Professor Anne Kavanagh, also a leading disability advocate and academic, has also welcomed the plan, but said it should have come sooner, as did a similar plan for aged care, and may not go far enough.

In this article, she warns that implementation of the plan will require detailed work, significant coordination between the disability and health sectors, and government agencies including the NDIS and the National Quality and Safeguards Commission, and require leadership from federal, state and territory governments.


George Taleporos writes:

We all have stories to share about when the medical system has let us down. But people with disabilities have more than the average person.

I blame decades of policy failings.

I blame the media for its negative representation of people with disabilities.

I also blame the medical schools. Doctors don’t learn about discrimination and human rights in most medical degrees. They learn about “the burden of disability” and how to “eradicate disease”.

Too many doctors decide that a disabled person is “Not for Resuscitation” based on their ablest assumptions about the quality of our lives.

The lack of awareness of our human rights permeates throughout the health sector and recent hearings by the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability have shed light on the human cost.

Health sector responses have been a life-and-death matter for people with disabilities for a very long time. Throw in a global pandemic and reforms to health sector policy and practice have never been more urgent.

Coronavirus threatens all of our lives. At the same time, we know that some people are at greater risk than others. People with disabilities who have high and complex support needs are in serious danger.

People like me face a triple threat.

  1. We are likely to die if we are infected. Our bodies are already weak. I throw a party when I survive a common cold.
  2. We are more likely to become infected. Relying on workers to come into our homes each day to keep us alive puts us in very close personal contact with people who may be carrying the virus.
  3. The health system is poorly equipped to manage our health and disability needs if we become sick. People who don’t know us well, who don’t understand our needs are more likely to unintentionally kill us when they are responsible for our care. I’m not being dramatic, there are many examples of this happening, some of which have been documented by the Royal Commission and in various government inquiries.

The Australian Government released the Management and Operational Plan for COVID-19 for People with Disability last Friday. This is the plan to make sure people with disabilities get the health care we need to keep safe and well during this pandemic.

It is a living document that will be revised and improved upon as we learn more about what we need to do to support people with disabilities through this pandemic.

I am a member of the advisory committee – if there is something that you want to see in this document, please reach out. There is a lot I don’t know about what people need.

Like all policy, implementation is key. Failings in implementation will cost lives. Without effective implementation, the plan will be as worthwhile as toilet paper – or even less so considering how valuable toilet paper is these days.

So when I was watching the news yesterday and the Health Minister was giving a press conference, I felt a bit nervous. He was announcing the arrival of 60 million masks ready for deployment to doctors, nurses, GPs, aged care workers, and allied healthcare workers, there was no mention of disability workers despite this commitment in the Minister’s plan.

I took a deep breath.

We have a lot more work to do.

Dr George Taleporos is a disability advocate, expert in disability service reform and policy manager at the Summer Foundation. You can follow him on Twitter at @drgeorgethecrip.

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Australian Palliative Care Conference