Disability support work during COVID-19 - Survey results

Important findings for governments, services, people with disability and their support workers on preventing COVID-19 transmission in the disability community.

DISABILITY SUPPORT WORKERS: THE FORGOTTEN WORKFORCE IN COVID-19 describes the findings from a national survey of 357 disability support workers (DSWs) conducted online between May and June 2020.

Respondents ranged from 18-75,  83 % were women, and 31% were over 50. Support workers were asked about specific work issues such as; how they managed physical distancing, COVID-19 infection control training, access to Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), testing, who they worked with and where they provided support and, the financial and psychological impacts of working during COVID-19.

Download Report

View online report

Like health and aged-care workers, DSWs can’t physically distance given the close personal contact required in their job, and when they work with an average of six different clients a week.

The survey also found these workers face financial hardship. Of those who took time off due to illness, only 47%were paid, reflecting the workforce’s casual nature. Thirty-four per cent faced financial difficulties like not being able to pay an electricity, gas or phone bill on time or being unable to pay their rent.

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. With cases now rising in Victoria, on 17 July PPE became compulsory for DSWs in hot spot areas.

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)


1. Keeping Disability Support Workers and People with Disability Safe

Keeping support workers safe

Download Fact Sheet 1

2. Financial and Psychological Impacts of COVID-19

Download Fact Sheet 2


The survey also found:

  • 53% of DSWs provided support with tasks that require close personal contact like feeding and brushing teeth
  • 23%had not received any COVID-19 infection control training
  • Of the 77% who did receive training, 48% would like more
  • 64% had received or purchased some form of personal protection equipment (PPE). More than half (54%) received gloves and 37% masks from their employer. Notably, 38% purchased their own masks, even when provided by their employer
  • 23% had been tested for COVID-19 infection and 11% wanted to be tested
  • 14%worked for more than one provider and 6% worked in both the aged-care and disability sector
  • 30% worked in two or more settings, and 14% worked in three or more settings
  • 27% cancelled shifts because they were worried about COVID-19 infection and 35% had shifts cancelled by clients or employers due to fear of COVID-19
  • 22 % of workers experiencing financial stress had probable mental illness, compared to 14% among those who did not report financial problems.

The findings from this survey 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.

Disability Support Workers: the forgotten workforce in COVID-19 was funded by the Melbourne Disability Institute, the University of Melbourne. For more information contact us

More Information

Professor Anne Kavanagh