People with Disabilities

by Bill Shorten, Shadow Minister for the National Disability Insurance Scheme, Shadow Minister for Government Services 

In August 2020, one of Melbourne’s luxe bayside suburbs, Albert Park, was the site of a terrible and sad tale.

In the middle of the city’s second hard lockdown, the residents of a private boarding house in the swish locale were discovered wandering around the streets maskless. At least 15 were infected with COVID-19.

Hambleton House was home to people with chronic, serious mental health issues, disabilities or behavioural problems.

A grand double-storey Victorian terrace from the outside, the house was a last resort for its residents and has in recent days been likened to this century’s version of a poor house.

The story unfolded to reveal squalid conditions so grim they would have made Charles Dickens wince, with many of the residents living in rooms riddled with bed bugs and human excrement.

The dark side of Hambleton House continues to haunt Victoria. It was closed soon after its residents were found to be sick and neglected and the people who lived there were sent to hospitals to recover.

Fourteen months on, what we still don’t know is whether any of the former residents, several of whom were on the NDIS, have been vaccinated.

While Hambleton House may be on the far end of the spectrum in the school of hard knocks, in an ideal world its residents would have been in safe, clean and warm accommodation and would have been first on the Morrison Government’s list for being vaccinated. They weren’t.

People with disabilities are understandably scared for their health and angry at the Morrison Government for leaving them behind. They are also as desperate as the rest of us for normal life to resume.

When the Government announced its vaccine rollout plan in March this year, people with disabilities who lived in shared accommodation or group homes like Hambleton House were supposed to be in the 1a top priority group.

On Monday, the Disability Royal Commission released a scathing draft report into the Morrison Government’s vaccine rollout to people with disabilities.

The draft report revealed the Morrison Government quietly “de-prioritised” the ultra-vulnerable cohort of people with disabilities in group homes or shared accommodation in favour of aged care residents, leaving them dangerously behind their other 1a counterparts.

It was one of three core problems the royal commission identified in the report, including curtailed access to vaccines for people with disabilities and failures in consultation and providing accessible information.

This week, according to news sources, aged care residents were 86 per cent fully vaccinated, while people with disability living in group homes or shared accommodation were languishing behind at 66 per cent.

It’s fine for the rest of the population to get to 80 per cent for reopening as we aren’t at risk, but these groups need to be as close to 100 per cent as is possible.

Now, as we get closer to the nation reopening, the report said it would be “grossly unfair, indeed unconscionable, if any people with disability who have not been given the opportunity to be fully vaccinated by the time the 70 per cent threshold is reached are denied the freedoms available to people who have been fully vaccinated”.

There are grave fears people with disability will be left stranded in their homes, unable to safely re-join everyday life because the Morrison Government won’t urgently vaccinate them.

Evidence has also shown 60 per cent of people in the UK who died in 2020 of COVID-19 had a disability.

On numerous occasions since the pandemic began, Labor has raised the alarm on the need for urgent prioritisation of people with disabilities.

We know we have less than four weeks before NSW’s lockdown ends, with Victoria and other States and Territories to follow.

I absolutely do not want the lockdowns to go for one minute longer than they have to. The Morrison Government must commence a blitz on vaccinating all people with disabilities or we may see deaths that were avoidable.

Also read: Vax Passport Just the Ticket

We are asking for urgent action from the Morrison Government.

Firstly, the Government must ensure immediate outreach for people with disabilities who are eligible and want to get vaccinated.

Secondly, it should release a clear roadmap to vaccinate all people with disability, carers and the disability care workforce. Mandating vaccination among residential disability support workers should also be considered.

Thirdly, the Morrison Government must ensure access to vaccinations, testing and resources for people with disability and their supporters.

Fourthly, we need up-to-date data on COVID-19 infection rates and vaccinations of people with disability.

Fifth, all data and information must be fully accessible.

Finally, stop cuts by stealth to disability supports under the cover of COVID-19.

There have been a thousand different kinds of experiences from the pandemic.

For the 4.4 million Australians who live with disabilities, the regular difficulties life has thrown at them has been ratcheted up to a maximum.

While most people with disability living in group homes or shared accommodation live in far superior accommodation than the residents of Hambleton House, they are no less vulnerable.

It would be un-Australian to leave them at risk of suffering and death while the rest of us enjoy our freedom after two years of hard work to get here.

This opinion piece was first published in The West Australian on Wednesday, 29 September 2021.

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