Six in 10 Covid-19 deaths have been disabled people
Disabled workers have found themselves on the pandemic’s brutal frontline, Frances O’Grady, TUC general secretary, told the Disabled Workers’ Conference.
"If there is one statistic that stands out above all others, then it is this: that of the 125,000 deaths from the pandemic, six in ten have been disabled people. Six in ten. A shocking number – but barely talked about in our public debate. It's almost as if the government thinks these lives are less valuable than others. We say: that's unacceptable."
She said thousands of disabled people had paid for the government's incompetence with their lives as it let the virus rip. "Because many of these deaths were completely avoidable," she said. The conference heard from other speakers who said disabled workers had also missed out on essential medical procedures and had appointments cancelled.
Frances O'Grady said that disabled workers have suffered disproportionately economically during the pandemic. With ONS figures suggesting that disabled workers are being singled out for redundancy, the TUC has demanded a temporary legal right to furlough. "Because nobody should be forced to choose between their life and their livelihood," she said.
"When the crisis there will be a need a recovery plan for working people and notably, a recovery for disabled workers, she said.
"That means getting to grips with both the disability employment gap and the disability pay gap. Disabled people earn 20 per cent less than their non-disabled counterparts. And the employment gap is almost 30 percentage points."
Natasha Hirst, chair of the NUJ's Disability Council, had equally sobering statistic for conference; almost seven out of ten people (68 per cent) who died from Covid-19 in Wales were disabled people. She said the Welsh Government's Disability Equality Forum report on the impact of Covid-19 on disabled people in Wales, due to be published later this month, highlights the appalling consequences for disabled people throughout this pandemic.
She said while the report is under embargo, words and phrases that jumped out at her throughout were: institutionalised ableism; inaccessible; exclusion; entrenched discrimination; isolation; trauma; erosion of voice, choice and control. She said:
"Our exclusion is driven by political and social attitudes. We are not valued. Our differences and talents are not embraced. When governments deprioritise us, so do employers, service providers and everybody else. We have experienced how easily in a crisis our human rights are discarded. That is why we need more disabled people in leadership roles. And more disabled activists in our unions."
The NUJ's Ann Galpin won praise from her co-chair of the TUC's Disabled Workers' Committee, Dave Allen, who thanked her for her substantial contribution to the committee's work. In her conference speech she concentrated on the plight of the self-employed during the pandemic.
"Many disabled people choose self-employment to better manage their impairments and to remove themselves from discrimination we've faced in employment. However, the pandemic has further marginalised disabled freelances working across the media industry. This is often low-paid, insecure work. Freelances do not have the protection of statutory sick Pay, nor many other benefits that employment offers."
She said despite lobbying by the NUJ and our sister unions in the creative industries, many disabled freelancers were excluded from the UK government's Self Employed Income Support Scheme. These freelances – including photographers – saw their work dry up overnight because of Coid-19.
For others it has meant working from home. An NUJ survey from January revealed that eight in 10 disabled members had not had reasonable adjustments organised through their workplace since the start of the pandemic. She said:
"As we move into 'hybrid' working environments, it is crucial that disabled workers are given a genuine choice about where and how they work their hours. Whether employed or freelance, the workplace is far from a level playing field for disabled workers."
Lynn Degele told conference about the important role trade unions have in enforcing reasonable adjustments for disabled workers. She said it was important they became normalised in workplaces, and managers become accustomed to them, so disabled workers can play a full role in their jobs and progress in their careers. She said:
"Access to Work meant that I received funding for assistive technology and training for myself and my then-manager to learn about the skills and tools. Since then, all the managers in my team have had training on hidden disability awareness, which means that I do not need to rely on my manager advocating for me or being present at all times. My whole team are aware of my strengths and challenges, and what I am likely to need for training and for my work. I can state what I need and trust it will be taken seriously and not seen as merely a preference.
"This has been vital in supporting my mental health over the past year since working from home due to Covid-19. Knowing my rights meant I could focus on my work and well-being, without the distraction of worry about how I would do that work."