People with disabilities have been disproportionately affected by the economic impact of COVID-19

By Talib Visram

January 15, 2021
The economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have exposed many of the structural cracks in society, including the holes in social systems and the socioeconomic inequities between privileged and marginalized communities.

While previous reports have focused on the immediate health effects of the virus on disabled people because of preexisting medical conditions, a new study considers their economic impact. The study, published in the Oxford Academic Journal for Public Health, found that people with disabilities in the U.K. have suffered greater economic impacts—specifically in terms of employment and financial security.

The study, conducted by Australian researchers, with funding from the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council, compared prepandemic survey data with that taken during the pandemic, for working-age people both with and without disabilities. The pandemic data were taken monthly in April, May, and June 2020, during which the U.K. was locked down with heavy restrictions on the opening of nonessential businesses, travel, and social contact.

The surveys addressed job loss (due to termination or furlough) and reduction in working hours, and measures of financial stress and security, including food poverty and debt. Respondents were asked if they’d had to rely on food banks or gone hungry, and whether they were managing to keep up on rent, mortgage, and household bill payments. They were also asked to self-assess their financial position between “living comfortably” and “finding it very difficult.”

The research team, led by Eric Emerson, a professor of disability population health at the University of Sydney, found that people with disabilities have been impacted remarkably more in these economic terms than people living without disabilities. Fifty percent of people with disabilities were found to have had to reduce work hours compared with 45% of nondisabled people. Seven percent of disabled people had used a food bank compared with 1.7% of people without disabilities; 8.1% had gone hungry in April versus 4.4%; and 16.6%—versus 9.1%—were behind on bill payments. Eighteen percent described themselves as being in a difficult financial position, versus 8.4%.

The authors also emphasized that disabled people face more socioeconomic struggles even without the challenges of the pandemic. Pre-COVID-19, 55% were employed compared to 83% of those without disabilities. That somewhat attenuated the results, but it also means that, because such significant changes occurred within a relatively small population, job loss and financial difficulty were even more notable.

“Financial stressors,” such as income poverty, food poverty, and insecure employment, impact disabled people even in usual times, the authors say, pointing to a piece written by the UN secretary-general, António Guterres, in May. “Even under normal circumstances, persons with disabilities are less likely to access education, healthcare and income opportunities or participate in the community,” he writes. “The pandemic is intensifying these inequalities—and producing new threats.” Economic stress is also known to cause long-term health and well-being problems.

Guterres spoke of the urgent need of “a disability-inclusive COVID-19 government response” as countries around the world build back their economies. “I urge governments to place people with disabilities at the center of COVID-19 response and recovery efforts and to consult and engage people with disabilities,” he wrote.

In their evaluation, the researchers agree that this is an “opportunity to design and build more inclusive and accessible societies.” In Britain’s case, they say that “these pleas have either not been heeded, or if measures have been implemented, they have so far been ineffectual.”

In an email to Fast Company, a spokesperson from the U.K. government wrote that it will debut a National Strategy for Disabled People in the spring, saying: “We know that disabled people are disproportionately impacted by this pandemic—that’s why we have worked hard to ensure they have continued access to disability benefits, further financial support, food, medicines and accessible guidance and communications since the start of the outbreak.”

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