Disability in the COVID-19 recovery
The disruption, shifting public health measures and isolation caused by COVID-19 have had significant consequences for people with disability. As we envisage the recovery, it’s critical that individuals with lived experience can help inform and shape a society and economy that values the contribution and care of people with disability.
In any given year, disability discrimination is the most common theme in the complaints we receive – and this has continued during the pandemic. Around one-third of the total complaints we’ve received since March 2020 have been related to disability, and around one-third of the COVID-specific complaints has also related to disability.
The experiences reported to us by people with disability during the pandemic have been many and varied.
The provision of goods and services is a common place for discrimination on the basis of disability. During the lockdown of nine public housing towers in inner Melbourne in July 2020, we heard that limited access to fresh air and NDIS supports was a significant problem for many children with disability living in those towers, particularly those on the autism spectrum. During this period, denial of supports and medication for people with mental health conditions was also a concern, leading to hospitalisation of some residents.
The requirement to wear a face mask has also caused potential problems for some people with disability who were unable to wear a face mask because of their condition. We heard about instances of people being refused service in supermarkets and at petrol stations despite having a valid exemption.
Education, too, has been a common theme in the complaints of disability discrimination during the pandemic. Remote schooling during the first stage of lockdown was a challenging period for students with disability – we heard from parents who felt they were unable to provide the support their child received at school.
The stress and disruption caused by the pandemic resulted in some school and university students seeking reasonable adjustments for their work – but they were not always able to access the support they required.
Some people with chronic illnesses or compromised immunity also faced disability discrimination in the workplace – people who felt they could not safely attend work reported being treated unfavourably as a result.
Under the Equal Opportunity Act, individual complainants carry the burden of trying to resolve these experiences of discrimination. Giving the Commission stronger investigative and enforcement powers and building opportunities for alternative dispute resolution into the Charter would help ease this burden.
Foundations for recovery
- Ensure people with disability can participate in the recovery from COVID-19 and the development of policies and laws that affect them.
- Strengthen the Commission’s investigative powers under the Equal Opportunity Act and enable alternative dispute resolution under the Charter, to better protect people with disability from discrimination.