This article was originally posted Australian  Human Rights Commission

From a public health perspective it was important for Australian governments to move quickly to introduce social distancing and self-isolation measures to reduce community transmission of COVID-19. This has played an important role in Australia’s successful efforts to ‘flatten the curve.’ However, while we have all felt the effects of our new way of living the impact has been profound for many of the 4.4 million Australians with disability.

For some it has meant an inability to obtain food, medicine, care and other essential supports. Perhaps less apparent in the broader community are the issues that may present for people with disability in terms of engaging with the healthcare system. For example, in other developed countries, there have been instances where the access of people with disability to intensive care units has been compromised.

‘Vulnerable’ or ‘vulnerable persons’ is the term that has repeatedly been used to describe people with disability in Australia during COVID-19. From the earliest recognition of the dangers posed by the pandemic, express policy changes were made to benefit many different groups of Australians but the term ‘disability’ was rarely used by decision-makers when referring to different people within Australia. The scale and enormity of the pandemic, together with the urgency of the required response, meant this may have been an oversight. But it highlights the need for community awareness of the specific and varied needs of people with disability to be continuously assessed, especially in distressing times.

An important aspect of any inclusive policy response to a health crisis or national disaster is for decision-makers to clearly articulate and acknowledge the issues faced by people with disability. This requires key decision-makers at all levels of government to consult with people with disability who will be affected. A plan of action may then be co-designed. This inclusive approach to policy development creates confidence that human rights will be respected, and aids transparent and effective decision-making.

Consequential public health responses need to be evidence-based, proportionate, inclusive, non-discriminatory, equitable and repeatedly articulated in an accessible manner.

Advisory Committee on Health Emergency Response to Coronavirus (COVID-19) for People with Disability 

In recognition of the significant impact of the pandemic on people with disability the Australian government established the Advisory Committee on Health Emergency Response to Coronavirus (COVID-19) for People with Disability (Advisory Committee) in early April 2020. The Advisory Committee advises the Chief Medical Officer, Professor Brendan Murphy.

I was pleased to be invited to join the Advisory Committee together with some of my colleagues in the disability sector with lived experience of disability. The role of the Advisory Committee is to ensure that the experiences and concerns of people with disability are central to the government’s health policy response to the pandemic. My specific focus, in line with my role as Disability Discrimination Commissioner, is to contribute a human rights perspective to our discussions and to ensure the experience of people with disability is considered. Applying a human rights-based approach to decision-making puts people at the centre of any response and seeks to ensure no Australian’s needs are overlooked.

Work of the Advisory Committee

Last month, the Advisory Committee supported the development of the Management and Operational Plan for COVID-19 for People with Disability (the Plan).

The Plan responds to some of the key human rights concerns of people with disability at this time and clearly states its focus as ensuring that health services provided in response to COVID-19 align with Australia’s obligations under the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which includes recognition of the right to life and equitable access to healthcare. It is a world-leading policy initiative.

Continuing work

The Advisory Committee will continue to meet weekly during the course of the pandemic. While the primary aim of its current work is to ensure the health and safety of people with disability during COVID-19, it is hoped that the Advisory Committee’s legacy will be longstanding. Provided it achieves its objectives, it will hopefully ensure government has a clear framework to create timely, effective and reviewable disability policy in the future.

Many lessons can be learnt from the challenges posed by COVID-19. One important lesson is in times of crisis, when difficult policy questions arise for people with disability, the key to a successful policy response is constructive engagement with people with lived experience.

Dr Ben Gauntlett
Disability Discrimination Commissioner