Don’t forget people with disabilities – Valmar adapts to Covid-19

Workers in essential services, like aged care and disability support, face a difficult question as most of the rest of the nation goes into isolation. They can’t stay home.

“Because the people we are supporting are vulnerable individuals, our staff are going to be less able to work from home and practice self-isolation or quarantine,” said Valmar CEO Hugh Packard.

“We’re doing everything we can to minimize and eliminate that [risk of exposure], but in the end if a person with a severe disability needs care and showering, you can’t deliver that over the phone.”

Mr Packard said the organisation surveyed its staff to see how people were feeling about the Covid-19 pandemic and whether they wanted to keep working. Almost half of the staff responded to the survey, with 15% of those respondents saying they wanted to stop working and self-isolate if the virus became active in the community where they were working. Another 15% said they wanted to self-isolate if the virus was in the service area they were working in within Valmar.

Those figures are in line with government estimates that 30% of essential workers will want to self-isolate if given the opportunity.

“Most of our staff don’t work full time, so we’ve got a surge capacity with other staff who are still working,” said Mr Packard.

“Most staff who are willing to continue working said they would be willing to work greater hours.”

The company hasn’t yet considered hiring additional staff to get through the pandemic, instead turning to existing staff and contracting with other companies which typically provide daytime social services for people with disabilities. Those companies aren’t currently able to operate and have trained staff in need of hours.

“I really don’t want to hire people and then not have the work for them,” said Mr Packard about his reluctance to take on new staff while the pandemic is still evolving. 

“That’s a cruel thing to do to set up an expectation [and not fulfil it].”

As a whole, the company will likely survive the pandemic with only a 2-3% drop in organisational activity.

“Some aspects [of the company’s services] are getting busier and there’s actually greater need and most of our [income] is reasonably secure and government-underwritten,” said Mr Packard, agreeing that Valmar as an organisation is in a more stable position “compared to other sectors which rely on customers.”

However, Valmar and other disability support service companies say they’re “disappointed at the [government’s] level of non-acknowledgment of people with disabilities as people with a vulnerability.” 

The Disability Royal Commission issued a “statement of concern” on March 31, asking all Australian governments to take necessary measures to ensure the safety of people with a disability. 

It states, “even in non-pandemic circumstances, people with disability are more likely than the general population to have health issues, compromised immunity, increased risk of morbidity, comorbidities and are more likely to die from preventable causes. Some people with disability will be unable to maintain social distancing practices because they rely on support workers for vital daily personal care, such as eating, drinking, toileting and dressing.”

The Commission said they have heard directly from people with a disability who are anxious and feel like they’ve been “left behind or ignored in government and community responses.”

The Commission concludes by asking the government to “seek input from people with disability, leading disability experts and advocates.”

Their key areas of concern include: access to health care, essential support services (including making sure support workers have appropriate protective equipment), information provided in accessible formats, access to food and nutrition and employment and income security, among other concerns. 

The Commission also expressed concern for people living within closed residential facilities if they are forced into a lockdown. 

“Such measures may also have the unintended consequence of reduction of formal oversight mechanisms (such as Community Visitor Schemes) and informal oversight provided by family, friends, supporters and advocates,” the Commission reads.

“With the decrease of oversight comes an increase in the risk of violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation.”

The statement of concern also included a note on First Nationals people with a disability, highlighting the higher number of co-morbidities and risk factors faced by those people.

“During the 2009 influenza pandemic, First Nations people with disability were four times more likely to be admitted to hospital than non-Indigenous people,” said the Commission.