Disability Support Work during COVID-19

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Disability support workers (DSWs) are largely overlooked as essential workers in the COVID-19 pandemic, despite their vital role in supporting people with disability. Researchers from the University of Melbourne and the University of NSW Canberra conducted an online survey of 357 disability support workers in May and June about their work during COVID-19. They were asked about physical distancing, access to PPE, infection control training, COVID-19 testing and the financial and psychological impacts of working during the pandemic.

Respondents ranged from 18-75 and 83 per cent were women, with 31 per cent aged over 50.  Like health and aged-care workers, DSWs can’t physically distance while working because certain tasks require close personal contact (such as feeding or brushing teeth). DSWs worked with an average of six people with disability in the week before the survey. It also found:

  • 23 per cent had not received any COVID-19 infection control training
  • Of the 77 per cent who did receive training, 48 per cent would like more
  • 64 per cent had received or purchased some form of personal protection equipment (PPE). More than half (54 per cent) received gloves and 37 per cent masks from their employer. Notably, 38 per cent purchased their own masks
  • 23 per cent had been tested for COVID-19 infection and 11 per cent wanted to be tested
  • 14 per cent worked for more than one provider and six per cent worked in both the aged-care and disability sector
  • 30 per cent worked in two or more settings, and 14 per cent worked in three or more settings
  • 27 per cent cancelled shifts because they were worried about COVID-19 infection and 35 per cent had shifts cancelled by clients or employers due to fear of COVID-19
  • 16 per cent reported high psychological distress levels consistent with serious probable mental illness; 22 per cent of workers experiencing financial stress had probable mental illness, compared to 14 per cent among those who did not report financial problems.

The researchers have made recommendations including updating PPE guidelines, proactively reaching out to DSWs so they can receive the required training, ensuring they have access to pandemic leave and making sure expert health staff can provide back-up if needed.

The survey reflects the situation for workers when PPE was just being made available to workers after a marked shortage in March and April.

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COVID-19 really emphasised in my mind how overlooked the disability sector is. At the beginning the government kept talking about health care workers and nursing homes but I never heard any mention of disability. It left us in unknown territory and felt like we had just been forgotten and weren’t as important as other workers. (Survey participant)

The findings are important for governments, services, people with disability and their support workers as they provide guidance on how to prevent SARS-CoV-2 infection among people with disability and the workers that support them.