People with disabilities are being left to sleep in their wheelchairs because support workers don’t have access to PPE and RATs

People with disabilities are being left to sleep in their wheelchairs because support workers don’t have access to PPE and RATs
People with disabilities are being left to sleep in their wheelchairs because support workers don’t have access to PPE and RATs. Photo: Getty Images
  • Disability support workers are falling out of the workforce in droves without access to PPE and RATs.
  • Industry groups say Australians living with disability are being forced to fend for themselves.
  • Some have reported that NDIS participants have been left to sleep in their wheelchairs without care as a result.
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Disabled Australians are among those suffering the worst of Omicron’s impacts, as support workers have been forced off the job in droves without access to personal protective equipment (PPE) and rapid antigen tests.

The Australian Services Union, which represents thousands of disability support workers across the country, is calling on the federal and state governments to make PPE, rapid tests, and paid COVID-19 leave available to the sector, to protect one of the nation’s most vulnerable groups.

ASU acting secretary Angus McFarland told Business Insider Australia that his members feel like the government has “forgotten” about Australians with disabilities and the people that care for them, and that extended isolation exemptions won’t relieve any pressure.

“[Disability support workers] don’t even have access to correct PPE and rapid antigen tests to prevent themselves from becoming close contacts in the first place,” McFarland said. 

Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced on Thursday that the government would extend the net of people who, after being designated a close contact, would be allowed to return to work without isolating once they return a negative RAT result to include all healthcare and support workers. 

McFarland said the move isn’t likely to come close to remedying workforce shortages in the sector, because they don’t have access to rapid antigen tests. He said NDIS Minister Linda Reynolds hasn’t advised the industry’s workers how far off they might be, either. 

As a result, the ASU suggests that about one in 10 NDIS support workers have contracted COVID-19 since November last year. Of those who have caught it, 23% were left without paid leave or access to any form of government support. 

Further to that, another 13% said they had supported an NDIS participant they were aware was COVID-positive, 30% of whom were sent to work without PPE or rapid antigen tests. 

Under these current policy settings, experts say, Australians with disabilities are being left to fend for themselves, as workers with little to no workplace protection fall out of the workforce in droves. 

Samantha Connor, president of People With Disability Australia, said the people who require the support of these fallen workers to lead healthy and dignified lives have been left on their own, scrambling to find any sort of care. 

“We’ve had reports of people not getting basic assistance for days on end, people sleeping in their wheelchairs because there’s no one to help them get into bed, and people going to hospital because they can’t get the support they need in their home or residential setting,” Connor said. 

“And we’ve also had reports that to limit staff shortages, nurses in some hospitals are being asked not to take rapid tests which means going to these hospitals to get services could also be potentially dangerous for people with disability as COVID could easily be spreading unchecked in such settings,” she said. 

For most Australians living with a disability, catching COVID-19 can have dire, life-threatening consequences. What’s more, Connor said, is that Australians with disabilities are “significantly under-vaccinated,”, if at all.

She said the position the sector is in comes as the direct result of multiple public policy failures.

“The decision to ‘let it rip’ without any of the requisite planning in place has left many people with disability with the impossible choice of putting their lives and health at risk because they can’t get a support worker or putting their lives and health at risk by getting a support worker who may have COVID,” Connor said. 

“Disability advocates have been warning about these kind of continuity of care issues ever since ‘let it rip’ seemingly became the official response to the pandemic. It is imperative that governments start listening to us and urgently fix these issues,” she said. 

Like the patients they care for, McFarland said the sector’s workforce is “extremely worried” about the speed with which the Morrison government has eased health restrictions and support measures. 

“Our members are very scared at the moment, understandably. You know, a lot of them are getting COVID; a lot of them are close contacts,” McFarland said. 

“A lot of them are supporting people who have COVID. But they’re doing that without any appropriate protection.”

He said it’s a “travesty” that workers have been left to source protection themselves, if they can even find it, when state health departments have identified N95 masks and PPE as the margin between being a close contact, or not.