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People with disabilities ‘left out’ of Ontario’s pandemic response

Activists say 2.9M Ontarians with disabilities are being disproportionately affected by the pandemic
People with disabilities in Ontario are calling on the province to make COVID-19 testing and vaccination appointments more accessible. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

Advocates and people with disabilities say they have been left behind in Ontario’s COVID-19 pandemic response, particular its testing and vaccination efforts.

As Omicron continues to sweep through the province, with a soaring number of hospitalizations, local health units and Ontario’s Ministry of Health have called for people to get booster shots as quickly as possible. In December, the province also launched a campaign to hand out free COVID-19 rapid tests in order to curb the growing wave of infections.

Centres saw long lines of people eagerly waiting outside in the middle of winter to get their hands on a rapid test or a booster shot, which people with certain disabilities can’t safely do, says advocate Catherine Gardner, who also uses a wheelchair.

“If you’re using a mobility device, a cane, walker, you just can’t stand in line that long,” Gardner said, adding there are usually no places for people to sit outside of these sites.

Gardner has gone to get rapid tests on several occasions where she has either had to wait for long periods of time outside in the cold, or forced to travel a fair distance from where accessible transit dropped her off.

Booking rides requires advance notice

Similar barriers have left people like John Redins tired and discouraged.

“It’s been like a roller coaster to watch [that] you have limited access to these things and to these type of events,” said Redins. 

In a statement, the Ministry for Seniors and Accessibility pointed to its Accessible Drives to Vaccines program that launched last summer and helps people with mobility issues get to their vaccine appointments. Ottawa Public Health has similar accommodations available for people in need of transportation.

However, many pop-up vaccine clinics or rapid test giveaways are hosted on short notice, sometimes on the same day they’re announced. Booking a ride through the provincial program and the city’s website requires at least 48 hours notice.

“It frustrates me because I feel like I’m being left out,” said Redins, who continues to recover from COVID-19 and laments his inability to get tested and vaccinated as soon as he would have liked.

Current response is ‘one size fits all’

There are 2.9 million Ontarians with disabilities, according David Lepofsky, a law professor and chair of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance.

He said that segment of the population has faced barriers throughout the entire pandemic, when they should in fact be made a priority. 

David Lepofsky is a law professor and chair of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance. (Tina Mackenzie/CBC)

“People with disabilities are disproportionately prone to get COVID. They’re disproportionately prone to get its worst consequences,” Lepofsky said.

From long lines, to outdoor locations, to physical distancing signs that can’t be seen by those who are visually impaired, he said there is rarely adequate accommodation for people with disabilities.

“The Ford government too often has taken a one-size-fits-all approach to its emergency planning, assuming that people have no disabilities,” he said.

Lepofsky said the alliance wants to see the government ramp up emergency plans to ensure vulnerable people with disabilities are assured access to testing and safe access to vaccines. Gardner said having these sites indoors would go a long way for that population, too.

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