COVID-19 and learning disability – change must come

Photo by Kristina Tripkovic on Unsplash

Turning Point’s national director of operations, Clare Taylor, discusses the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on people with learning disabilities. 

Inequalities in health outcomes for those with a learning disability has long been an issue. On average, the life expectancy of a man with a learning disability is 14 years shorter than the general population; this rises to 18 years for women[1]. NIHR research released in March 2020 also found that people with a learning disability are more likely to be admitted to hospital with conditions that could be prevented by better community and primary health care[2].

Regretfully, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated these pre-existing health inequalities. The range of measures put in place to stop the spread of COVID-19 has led to increased isolation, hardship and put a toll on some of the most vulnerable in society. As a provider of residential care and supported living services for people with a learning disability, we have seen these issues first-hand and worked where we could to mitigate them.

Professor Tom Shakespeare at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine has been primary investigator on research looking into of the impact of the pandemic on people with a disability. Through the use of qualitative interviews with a range of stakeholders, they painted a picture of the struggles that people have faced over the last year.[3]

Professor Shakespeare’s research found that many people with a disability have really struggled with isolation through the pandemic.

At Turning Point, we have witnessed the impact of national guidance restricting visits from friends and family in residential social care settings first hand. It has been particularly challenging for people with limited capacity to understand the reasons for successive lockdowns and despite sterling efforts from support staff to maintain contact with friends and family, the lockdowns have placed huge pressure on mental wellbeing of people we support, particularly those with limited verbal communication.

On the plus side, we have been able to continue to provide support in our residential and accommodation based services throughout the pandemic.

Professor Shakespeare also highlights the closure, or suspension, of day centres, day services and large sections of the social care system and the fact large numbers of social care contracts were cancelled, put on hold, or severely limited as key issues which heightened this isolation and put pressure on informal carers.

The pandemic has also impacted access to health services. A recent study into the experiences of people with autism found significant barriers when accessing COVID-19 services. They found that interruptions to standard health and social care left over 70% of autistic people without everyday support.

In addition they found that in spite of people with autism being at elevated risk of severe illness due to co-occurring health conditions, there was a lack of accessibility of COVID-19 testing and that many COVID-19 outpatient and inpatient treatment services were reported to be inaccessible, predominantly resulting from individual differences in communication needs.

Professor Shakespeare’s research also found examples of difficulty accessing services when they were moved online during the pandemic. Many of the changes presumed that people have access to the internet, however for those who didn’t there was a “double exclusion”.

Read the full blog post here.

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