Post-pandemic world must be more inclusive, offer more supports for those living with disabilities

With COVID-19 vaccination underway, now is the time to start talking about what the "new normal" should look like for people living with disabilities, says community living support worker Carlos Sosa.

Ensure access to opportunities for people with intellectual disabilities in 'new normal': Winnipeg support

Many people living with disabilities 'have no one to socialize with, outside of their paid care workers,' says personal support worker Carlos Sosa. (Olesia Bilkei/Shutterstock)

The federal government predicts there will be enough COVID-19 vaccine available to every Canadian who wants it by the end of September

So now is the time to start talking about what the new normal should look like for people living with disabilities.

The slow rollout of the vaccine and the loosening of restrictions means we are starting to emerge into a post-vaccine world.  

But our most vulnerable citizens will be among the last to emerge. That's because of the systemic barriers that they have always faced. 

The current reopening, for example, only benefits those who have the financial resources to take advantage of what is opening.

According to Barrier Free Manitoba, people living with disabilities make up roughly 15 per cent of Manitoba's population, but live disproportionately in poverty.

People living with disabilities of working age have an employment rate of 59 per cent, in comparison to 80 per cent for those without disabilities, according to Statistics Canada. They also make up 35 per cent of the Employment and Income Assistance caseload in Manitoba.  

Impact of isolation

As a support worker who works with people with intellectual disabilities, I see how the impact of poverty and isolation affects our most vulnerable on a daily basis.  Many of them, whose family long ago abandoned them, have no one to socialize with, outside of their paid care workers. 

The limited choices that confront these individuals, regarding who they can interact with, has an impact on their mental health.

One individual I support relies on Employment and Income Assistance and can't afford to access the internet. He doesn't have the money to purchase the required equipment, or the requisite skills to do so. His inability to use a tool that is vital for the rest of us to stay in touch means he cannot order groceries online, book a lab test or use Zoom (even if he had a family member that was willing to talk to him).  

He relies on a food bank and frozen dinners, because no one bothered to teach him how to cook. 

Consider 'cost of inclusion'

Our most vulnerable populations have been impacted by the spread of COVID-19.  The most obvious examples are personal care homes.

But people with disabilities who are in congregate settings, such as residential homes, are also affected. This part of the picture has been ignored.  

The spread of COVID-19  in congregate living facilities must make governments move toward the de-institutionalization of people living with intellectual disabilities, and into more community-based housing that facilitates the inclusion of our most vulnerable in communities.

The new normal must include financial support that allows a person with a disability to access opportunities in the community, like everyone else.

According to 2019 statistics from Maytree, a national human rights and anti-poverty advocacy organization, a person living with a disability and on Employment and Income Assistance received $12,650 per year — that's $9,877 below the market basket measure (Canada's official poverty measure).   

Many of our most vulnerable have been forgotten inthe COVID-19 vaccine rollout.- Carlos Sosa

One of my clients, who relies on employment and income assistance, is very limited in his options. Over this past year, purchasing simple things like cleaning supplies and hand sanitizer — important during our COVID-19 realities — has been a challenge for him. 

Social assistance rates for our most marginalized individuals need to consider the cost of inclusion as a benchmark for what it really takes for a person with a disability to participate in the broader community. Once this is done, we will be on the path toward a society that includes and values our most vulnerable individuals.

Over the last year, many of our most vulnerable have been forgotten in the COVID-19 vaccine rollout. People in personal care homes at least have their families (valued members of our society) to speak up for them. They have gotten the attention of the leaders of Manitoba, because of their use of media, drawing attention to their loved ones' deaths.  

For those with intellectual disabilities, who have no one to speak for them except their care workers (undervalued members of our society), there seems to be no such plan in place. 

It is time that this changes.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.


Carlos Sosa is a graduate of the University of Winnipeg and a support worker in the community living sector. He is on the boards of both Inclusion Winnipeg and Inclusion Canada.