Living with disability during a global pandemic

Like everyone across Australia, people living with disability – physical and/or intellectual – want a high quality of life and to participate in all areas of society. And while many people with disability achieve this, some face significant challenges along the way due to factors such as social isolation, discrimination, and a lack of opportunities, particularly in terms of employment.

Disability in Australia

In Australia, around one in five people has a disability of some kind.

As a result of genetic disorders, illnesses, accidents, ageing, or a combination of these factors, there are different types of disability – physical and intellectual. And there are varying degrees; from having no impairment or limitation to a complete loss of functioning.

The social model of disability

The social model of disability, as opposed to the medical model of disability, is the internationally recognised way to view and address ‘disability’. But what is it? According to the People with Disability Australia (PWDA) website:

'The social model seeks to change society in order to accommodate people living with impairment; it does not seek to change persons with impairment to accommodate society. It supports the view that people with disability have a right to be fully participating citizens on an equal basis with others.'

Watch a video and find more information about the social model of disability.

Woman with Downs syndrome smiling at the camera 

Living with disability during a global pandemic

While mental health conditions and loneliness affect people from all walks of life, many people living with disability face specific and often heightened challenges when it comes to mental health and wellbeing. According to data from Australian Institute of Health & Welfare, people with disability are more likely to have poorer general and mental health than people without disability.

During COVID-19, the threat of serious illness and the restrictions introduced to protect us have been, and still are, particularly tough for many people with disability – as well as their families and caregivers.

A community survey report (published in August 2020) by Every Australian Counts, which can be downloaded here, highlights the impact the pandemic had on people with disability during the ‘first wave‘, pinpointing a range of concerns including access to information, services and support, and a rise in loneliness.

The vast majority of the survey’s respondents said they felt lonely due to COVID-19. They also felt 'forgotten and ignored' as well as 'anxious and stretched almost to breaking point'.

 People with disability have a right to be fully participating citizens on an equal basis with others 

Moving towards ‘COVID normal’

For many people with disability, this remains a very difficult time. Throughout Australia, no matter what restrictions are still in place, access to usual services and support and the ability to freely see family and friends remain affected to some extent.

The uncertainty and fear that COVID-19 brought into our everyday lives is also still prevalent for many, and trying to shift to ‘a COVID normal’ way of life brings certain challenges – the requirement to continue social distancing and, in some places, to wear a mask, both of which may be difficult for some people with disability.

With the pandemic continuing to impact our lives in some way or another, looking after our mental health and wellbeing is more important than ever.

Man in wheelchair in park with carer


Supporting your mental health & wellbeing

People with a physical disability

For 4 in 5 people with disability, their main form of disability is physical. A physical disability refers to a condition that limits bodily function in some way.

In this separate article we speak to Dr Nick Hagiliassis from Scope about the impact of COVID-19 on people with physical disability and how they can support their mental health.

People with an intellectual disability

Over half a million Australians have intellectual disability and a majority have a severe or profound limitation in 'core' activities of daily living. It’s common for people with intellectual disability to have other co-morbidities, the most common being mental health conditions. Read more about intellectual disability.

In this article, we speak to Professor Julian Trollor from the University of New South Wales about why people with intellectual disability are more likely to experience poor mental health during the pandemic than the rest of the general population, as well as ways they – and their caregivers – can help support their mental wellbeing.

Additional resources

Psychosocial disability is a term used to describe a disability that may arise from a mental health issue. For more information about psychosocial disability please visit the NDIS website.

Featuring six-time Paralympian, Danni Di Toro, this episode of the Grow Bold With Disability podcast discusses why people with disability are more likely to experience high levels of psychological distress than those without disability. Access the full podcast series.

For more information about COVID-19 for people with disability, see:

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