March 31, 2020

Is this a new era for the disability industry?

These are unprecedented times. We don’t know what the future holds or what the long-term effects are. Each day presents new challenges and very little certainty, and we’re all feeling it.

“The disability support industry is feeling the pinch too.”

As each day unfolds, industries become increasingly impacted in one way or another from the rapid onset of this pandemic. Sadly, some have been hit harder than others, and the disability support industry is right up there.

It may be temporary, or it may change our lives forever. It’s too soon to tell but, it could also bring about constructive change. The last few weeks are a testament to how some businesses can adapt to meet their customers' needs and keep themselves afloat.

But what about the disability industry?

With the current pattern of changes, it’s not hard to predict that things could get worse. As the pandemic creates a deficit of experienced support workers, I personally am feeling the impact.

This may be in part due to individuals having to self-isolate or quarantine. However, it appears that it’s primarily due to fear as support workers risk their health daily by working in close proximity to clients who depend on 24-hour support. Even so, support workers and clients cannot reliably get their ‘hands’ on personal protective equipment (PPE), pun intended.

Image description: A grocery store shelf sold out of hand sanitiser. A sign says "All hand sanitizer products are sold out."



Unlike hospitals, medical and aged care facilities, where PPE is supplied, support workers and those they support must provide their own PPE through local shops, supermarkets and pharmacies. The kicker is, these retail suppliers can’t meet the demand for masks, gloves and hand hygiene products, and support workers are left vulnerable.

Another factor in the workforce decline is that some people with disability are choosing to cancel their supports. Not necessarily out of fear, but simply because their support needs were primarily for community access but let’s face it, there’s not a whole lot going on right now in terms of community social activity.

Whilst physically being active in the community is a big red flag right now, it’s still vital for people’s health and well-being to maintain social connections with friends and family while having fun. Thank goodness for social media and modern technology, right? With apps like Skype and Zoom, it’s easier than ever to stay connected and from a safe distance. Plus, there are a whole bunch of ways we can entertain ourselves within the comfort and safety of our own homes. This may not be easy for people with disability, though, and they may still require support in this area.

Image description: Screen shot of Jono on a video telehealth call with his speech pathologist.



So, could there be an opportunity to think outside the box and adapt to these new (hopefully temporary) norms? There may undoubtedly be an opportunity for support workers to utilise current technology to help clients remain engaged in their community.

Unfortunately, this isn’t an option for everyone. While some of us navigate the uncertainty and constant change either independently or with a company, others are entirely reliant on 24-hour support. Maintaining ritualistic daily routines is essential to their mental and physical health and well-being.

Every person in the world right now is having to make lifestyle changes to some degree. While most of us can do that with relative ease, albeit unpleasant at times, it’s essential to consider that for others, setting these new routines is not only a complex task in itself. It requires a multi-disciplinary team of providers to make those adjustments. Even somewhat minor changes to a person’s daily routine must be met with the proper support in order for them to live comfortably.
 
What does the future look like for people with disability and support workers?

I am hearing many people say that as other industries close their doors, the disability sector will see an influx of unqualified support workers.

“It may not be all doom and gloom, and there may just be a silver lining.”

Some view this as a negative thing, but my experience over the years has shown me that a good support worker isn’t necessarily qualified and experienced but has a great attitude and a willingness to learn. But hey, I like to focus on the positive, and I can see a silver lining on this dark, ominous cloud.

Sometimes change is a good thing. Out with the old and in with the new. This is a prime opportunity for the disability industry to build a new workforce of open, inclusive thinkers to shape the ideal support worker. More importantly, it’s a chance for people with disability to have their voices heard and be active in fostering positive change. If we’re not careful, we can miss the opportunity to change the culture of the working relationship between people with disability, their support workers and the organisations that employ them.

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