Orla McCann, Project Manager
The Covid-19 Pandemic introduced us to a new phrase ‘social isolation’. Unfortunately, it is a term known only too well by disabled people. Disability Action and other disability advocacy organisations have been raising awareness of this for many years. Perhaps the only silver lining of the last two years is that policy makers, Government Departments and the public have a better idea of what the disabled community lives with daily.
In fact, this is why ONSIDE was created. Prior to its inception, our research showed that social isolation was a critical concern amongst the disabled community and our aim was to address this and the lack of connection and citizenship that many disabled people experience.
Social isolation is the sustained lack of emotional, physical and practical connections to the world around us. What is worse is social isolation breeds social isolation; disabled people are less likely to connect with society when they are faced with barriers and challenges every time they try to. This was exaggerated even more so because of COVID 19, where accessible social care and essential services were withdrawn.
What most of us experienced during the many lock downs is not true ‘social isolation’ … in the long-term, permanent sense. It was a short-term physical isolation eg going to the shop once a week or one daily walk. This is not what many disabled people experience all of the time. Here’s what I believe creates the ‘social isolation’ many disabled people experience:
A continued lack of accessibility in our buildings and on our streets mean that for many disabled people going about daily life is a challenge. Yes, the built environment has improved greatly over the last two decades but there is also a misunderstanding that legislation like the Disability Discrimination Act and the Building Regulations mean that we don’t need to focus on that any more. Anyone with a mobility issue or a parent who has pushed a double buggy can attest that A LOT still remains to be done. For many people with ASD, a learning disability, sight or hearing loss public places remain largely inaccessible.
Public transport remains unavailable to many disabled people – not just in rural areas but also for those who live in towns and cities. The investment made in low floor buses is welcomed but that doesn’t help if you cannot get to a bus stop. A lack of dropped kerbs, cars parked on footpaths, or even just bin day can make moving around outdoors almost impossible for disabled people.
Accessible taxis remain unavailable or unaffordable. The Disability Action Transport Service and other community transport providers provide a lifeline to disabled people living with that reality.
For many disabled people employment opportunities or meaningful employment remains scarce, the Labour Force Survey shows that disabled people in Northern Ireland are twice as likely to be unemployed and in turn, twice as likely to live in poverty. Opportunities for training, further education and access to apprenticeships are also limited by an inflexible framework of the necessary qualifications criteria.
Recent ‘Welfare Reform’ has reduced access to benefits or has created huge stress on those who rely on benefits as their sole income. Whilst welfare reform was unwelcome for many households already struggling, it had a disproportionate impact on disabled people. I do believe that Welfare Reform and mis-informed social media messaging has compounded negative attitudes toward disabled people as ‘scroungers’ and a ‘burden’.
Over the last two years connecting with friends and family online has become the norm for many of us, but again, disabled people are disadvantaged. Almost 50% of disabled people in the UK do not have access to the Internet with the highest level of under-usage being in Northern Ireland. Where disability advocates are online and vocal on Instagram, TikTok, Twitter, and Facebook their voice has been strong. This is an area that will only get stronger. We all have our part to play in calling out disability discrimination online.
How ONSIDE is reducing social isolation?
Covid-19 certainly impacted our project, it delayed equipment, it forced many of our participants indoors and it upended face to face training. As a team, we strategically redesigned the delivery and implementation of the project to move our services entirely online. Since March 2020, we have supported over and equipped 1,584 participants (January 2022).
The pandemic proved the worth or the project in enabling our participants to become or remain connected to their family, friends and wider community network using the skills and support they gained from their ONSIDE experience.