COVID-19 INQUIRY: 15 Percent of Blind Individuals Claim They Faced Bullying Over Social Distancing

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Vision Australia also received reports of people denied entry to vaccine hubs due because of the presence their guide dog.

A Vision Australia survey has revealed 15 percent of blind and low vision Australians were “abused or bullied” for having difficulties complying with social distancing requirements.

This was one of many findings Vision Australia outlined in its submission to the federal government’s COVID-19 inquiry.

The inquiry has received 2,090 submissions from individuals and members of the public, a response that panel members have described as “overwhelming.”

Vision Australia said people with disability were among the groups that were severely impacted by all aspects of the pandemic.

The organisation, which assists 26,000 people who are blind or have low vision every year, conducted multiple client surveys during the pandemic to highlight challenges in the low vision and blind community.

The 492 responses received in a early 2021 survey painted “quite a disturbing picture,” Vision Australia noted.

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More than 52 percent of blind and low vision individuals reported they felt socially isolated during the pandemic.

In addition, 42 percent expressed that uncertainty about QR codes would negatively impact their confidence resuming face to face activities.

In mid 2021, as mass vaccination hubs were established, Vision Australia also received concerning reports from people who were blind or had low vision.

For example, the online vaccine eligibility checker did not comply with accessibility guidelines, making it difficult for blind or low vision individuals to check eligibility for the vaccine.

Further, multiple people were denied entry to a vaccine hub due to using an “assistance animal” such as a Seeing Eye Dog.

Vision Australia said apart from Victoria, none of the states and territories appeared to implement readily accessibly in-home PCR testing for those who could not travel to a testing centre.

“This had a significant impact on the blind and low vision community, and we received numerous reports that people had been unable to have a PCR test to diagnose COVID-like symptoms that they were experiencing,” the organisation said (pdf).

The organisation recommended that public health authorities be required to engage in disability impact analysis before implementing public health measures.

“Working in combination with a national disability-inclusive disaster response group, such an analysis would provide an opportunity for expert and informed input to be considered, and for impact mitigation strategies to be developed,” Vision Australia said.

They expressed concern that without a changed approach, they were not confident the needs of the blind would be considered in any future pandemic or disaster.

“If ad hoc and haphazard approaches continue, then we have little confidence that the needs of people who are blind or have low vision will be even considered, let alone addressed, in future waves of the COVID-19 pandemic or in other pandemics and natural disasters that may occur in the future.”

Disability Groups Voice Concerns

Meanwhile, Children and Young People with Disability Australia (CYDA) has expressed concern that people with a disability experienced distress and exclusion during the pandemic.

“Children and young people with disability have encountered an elevated degree of risk throughout the global pandemic, not due to their impairments, but as a result of discriminatory, limited, or inappropriate policies implemented to manage infections in the community,” the organisation said (pdf).

“The absence of a coherent national strategy in Australia has exacerbated the exclusion, uncertainty, and distress experienced by these individuals.

The group recommends that the government develop a National children and Young People Recovery Plan to protect children and young people from the “developmental, social, and economic scarring” effects of COVID-19 lockdowns and any future pandemics.

Meanwhile, the Disability Advocacy Network Australia (DANA) said the disability community was one of the most impacted groups during the pandemic.

“Not only are people with disability at greater risk of serious illness, complications, and death from infections like COVID-19, but the Disability Royal Commission (PRC) also found that during the pandemic, people with disability were at greater risk of experiencing violence, abuse, neglect, and exploitation,” DANA said (pdf).
The New South Wales (NSW) government Ageing and Disability Commission also noted (pdf) that older people and adults with a disability were at “heightened risk of abuse” during the pandemic.

The submission said preventative health measures reduced the oversight mechanisms that “aim to protect them.”

“COVID-19 heightened the risk of abuse, neglect and exploitation of adults with disability and older people and reduced access to safe alternative or short-term accommodation to escape violence,” the commission said.

“Notably, preventative measures against the spread of COVID-19 led to the closure of community access, day program activities, and other in-person support services, a consequence of which was reduced oversight mechanisms that aim to protect older people and adults with disability, and a reduced ability to report abuse safely and away from the subject of an allegation.”

The COVID-19 inquiry is reviewing the Commonwealth government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and accepted submissions between Nov. 6 and Dec. 15.

Actions “undertaken unilaterally by state and territories” are not in the scope of the inquiry. However, the inquiry is considering the “roles and responsibilities” of federal, state, and territory governments responding to the pandemic.

“We have been overwhelmed by the openness and willingness of the more than 2,000 people and organisations who have taken the time to share their insights and experiences,” the panel chaired by Robyn Kruk said.

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