How the pandemic affected the mental health of the disabled

Coronavirus has affected us all, but Kitty Bates reminds us that disabled people have suffered more than most

During the covid pandemic disabled people found their mental health deteriorated more than able bodied people, according to data from the Office of National Statistics. The data showed that those impacted most by the pandemic in the UK were disabled people, with 46% of disabled people saying that coronavirus made their mental health worse, compared to 29% of able-bodied people. 
Those with mental health disabilities, learning difficulties, social or behavioural disabilities, memory and dexterity related disabilities reported that their mental health was worsened by the pandemic more than other types of disabilities. 
How has the pandemic affected those with disabilities?
Disabilities are more than just those confined to wheelchairs, in fact, there are numerous conditions which are considered disabilities. Therefore when discussing how the pandemic has affected those with disabilities, it’s important to consider all types of impairment. 
Those impacted most by the pandemic in the UK were disabled people, with 46% of disabled people saying that coronavirus made their mental health worse
For example, those with processing and learning difficulties will have struggled as their routines so carefully created will have been turned upside down overnight, and the future uncertainty caused much fraught amongst this group.
Those with serious mental health conditions, such as depression, borderline personality disorder, or schizophrenia, may have seen a worsening of their condition, or new triggers created by news sites and increasing fear. 
And those with physical disabilities may have had their physio appointments cancelled or been unable to access much needed complementary remedies that benefitted their life. 
All these factors, as well as existing concerns and worries for ill health, made lockdowns and the pandemic much harder for disabled people to continue. 
Impact on families
While disabled people are those directly affected, the fallout on loved ones, colleagues and families is felt in different ways.
During stricter lockdowns, especially when the concept of a support bubble didn’t exist, those with serious mental health illnesses were isolated from those who cared for them, even if they didn’t live together. This hardship was felt by everyone, and those who wanted to reach out in person couldn’t as the risk of spreading an illness was felt. Those who were at risk of suicide and dark thoughts couldn’t be reached by family members, which caused stress and anxiety amongst those. 
Similarly, people who have a physical illness, perhaps even living in supported residences, will have only had their carers and medical staff to provide comfort, making it harder to feel positive during a dark time. And because of the risk of infection to those in supported residences and shielding, many people weren’t able to get outdoors and spend time with families during the summer. 
The employer’s role 
For those working during lockdowns and pandemics, there’s often a stigma that those working from home are not working properly or are second fiddle to those in offices. For many disabled people, working from home is a need, not a want, and therefore, employers must be flexible to these needs. 
In order to best support remote employees, especially ones with more specific working requirements, employers need to consider multiple factors. 
  • The creation of policies that allow for adaptability 
  • Fair and equal benefits
  • Diversity and inclusion systems that actively reduce bias. 

1. Creating adaptable policies

To create an adaptable policy, an employer cannot just look at the practices that happen now, but also preparing for a future that may not look like the present does. If the pandemic taught us one thing, it is that adaptability is key. And, when planning for disabled employees, a company’s policies must allow for more than just the norm. 
For example, a Bring Your Own Device policy needs to account for the fact that a physically disabled employee may not be able to easily attend an office to have their equipment checked. Therefore, employers should have remote ways of overcoming this, and prepare and document these processes. 
2. Fair and equal benefits
Where employees are disabled in any capacity, benefits programmes often exclude their needs. For example, a fuel benefit for a blind person who cannot drive would be a bad idea. Therefore, where benefits are helpful to the most, an equal and fair benefit should be given and be made available. In the scenario above, a monthly travel compensation for these employees would be the most helpful. It gives them an equal and fair benefit, that helps them in a similar way. 
3. Diversity and inclusion systems to reduce bias
For many people with disabilities, they often feel excluded in some shape or form. Similarly, too much focus on disabled people can make them feel uncomfortable and pulled out, as if they are in the spotlight. Instead, employers should focus on creating a diversity and inclusion system that creates an equal balance across everyone.
While COVID-19 has affected people all over the world, everyone’s experience has been unique. Create a positive culture of support and empathy in the workplace to help employees feel more comfortable, relaxed and prepared to help one another.
Kitty Bates writes for IRIS HR, specialising in human resource. Kitty has a passion for bringing critical industry news into the spotlight.

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