New statistics reveal that disabled people have faced a ‘markedly increased risk’ of death during the Covid-19 pandemic than their more able-bodied counterparts.

The study, which examined 29 million adults between January 24th 2020 and February 28th 2021, found that disabled men with higher support needs were 74 per cent more likely to die of coronavirus. For women, that figure is 90 per cent.

Death, Disability, and Covid

Even after factoring in variables such as ‘socio-economic background, poor health and housing’, disabled women still emerge 91 per cent more likely to fatally contract the virus.  Thus, we cannot attribute their ‘markedly increased’ death risk to the preexisting vulnerabilities disabled people live with.

Much like the issue of domestic abuse, the global pandemic simply exacerbated the disadvantages that disabled people contend with on a daily basis. During the years of austerity, disabled people have seen their vital benefits and services devastated in the name of balancing the books. The government’s apathy towards disabled people during the pandemic was sadly somewhat predictable when measured against this climate. Very early into the first lockdown, the government passed the controversial ‘Care Act easements [which] allowed councils to suspend duties to assess needs, carry out financial assessments and make support plans’.

Stay at Home. Protect the NHS. Save (Able-Bodied) Lives.

When the government suspended all local elections, disabled people also lost their lifeline into politics: the EnAble Fund for Elected Office. It existed to finance disabled people’s political candidature by covering the costs incurred by the candidate’s additional needs, such as British Sign Language (BSL) interpreters and travel or mobility requirements. In so doing, the fund served to ‘help candidates with a disability to compete on a level playing field with all other candidates’ so that they were not — so to speak — ‘disadvantaged out’ of the political scene.

Underrepresented and Underground

Disabled people’s equal representation, or at least access to it, may well have been one of the first casualties of the coronavirus lockdown. Dr. Sarabajaya Kumar contested in the London Assembly Election and was unable to access any funding to cover the extra costs of her campaign.

This ugly mistreatment of less-able people, so out-of-line with modern thinking, can be attributed to an absence of disabled people from policy-making circles. Of the 650 MPs in Parliament, only five are known to be disabled.  Among councillors, it’s only 10 per cent. As explained by Suzanna Austin (Liberal Democrat Women):

‘If you have women making the decisions, the thinking is just a little bit different because women pick up on slightly different things. Sometimes, men just don’t interact with some [women’s] issues, they don’t hit them and they don’t see it’.

Stay at Home. Protect the NHS. Save (Able-Bodied) Lives.

The exact same applies to the able-bodied/less-able divide.

The resulting underrepresentation of disabled people can only have been set back further by the absence of the EnAble Fund during the 2021 local election season. Disabled voices were lacking from the political landscape when they should have been causing a political earthquake.

Apart from scrapping the EnAble Fund, what else could exclude less-able people from the political sphere? Claire Reynolds, the National Officer at the Labour Women’s Network, notes the presence of a ‘grassroots culture’, saying:

‘… Sometimes the way that the Labour Party does its meetings is a bit hostile and adversarial and that, we find, tends to disproportionately deter women’. 

Such an environment is unhelpful for introducing disabled people into political discourse. Apart from the heightened possibility of ableist comments, this setting could well alienate neurodivergent people with noise sensitivity or hypersensitivity from the vital decision-making discussions that require their participation. While we need liberation group members to highlight the shortcomings they struggle against every day, the relevant discussions can be all the more closed to them. Claire explains:

‘the Labour Women’s Network message is always to persist. We use the feminist quote “Nevertheless, she persisted” as our strapline and we just encourage people to be resilient. Even if it takes 25 mentions of an issue during a constituency meeting to effect change, mention it 25 times’. 

This alone highlights that marginalised people must fight being excluded from important discussions on the best of days. It also explains why the Women’s Equality Party have protested a total of 91 hours against the treatment of disabled women during the lockdown. That is a 91-hour protest, hoping against hope to bring the issue to public recognition and the House.

It is unlikely that disabled people’s representation will improve in the Houses of Parliament overnight. However, it is worth remembering that disability care affects us all. Anyone can fall ill and become less mobile and more reliant, at any time.

If we start thinking about disability services as designed for the general public and not a minority, the matter hits completely differently. It becomes far more pressing, meaning current users might be better served.

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