People with disabilities still face barriers to vaccination

There is no publicly available data on COVID-19 vaccination rates for people with disabilities at the Ontario or public health unit level.

Joanne Laucius, Ottawa Citizen 3 minute read June 11, 2021

Ontario has prioritized vaccinations for people with disabilities — but being eligible isn’t enough to make sure they are vaccinated, says a report from the province’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table.

One in five Ontario residents has a physical, mental, intellectual, or sensory impairment, increasing to 40 per cent of people over the age of 65, said the report produced by an independent panel of scientific experts and health system leaders.

People with disabilities have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19. They are more likely to be infected because they live in congregate settings such as group homes, require in-person care or have chronic health conditions, the report said.

They are also more likely to become seriously ill or die if infected. In the U.K., 59 per cent of COVID-19 deaths were people with disabilities, even though only 17 per cent of the population has a disability.

At the same time, there is no publicly available data on COVID-19 vaccination rates for people with disabilities at the Ontario or public health unit level, the report said.

Among the findings:

• A scan of websites for the province’s 34 public health units found that only one-third have some form of accessible format available on their websites, such as easy-to-read information about vaccines or a walking tour of the process. Only nine per cent said sign language interpretation was available.

• More than 90 per cent of public health unit websites did not mention whether they had facemask exemption policies. Nine per cent stated there were no exemptions.

• Only nine per cent of the websites said clinics had private vaccination stations for people with needle phobias or sensory impairments. The rest had no information.

• Some people with disabilities need someone to support them leading up to and during the vaccination. Two-thirds of the public health units explicitly allow care partners. But information about which physical, sensory and social accommodations were available at clinics was often missing, and listed information was limited.

Ontario should use a two-pronged approach — improve accessibility at mass clinics and community pop-ups, while using targeted approaches through partnerships with community organizations, disability groups and health providers —  the report said.

York Region, for example, held a drive-through clinic for 2,000 people with developmental disabilities and their caregivers, and the Region of Waterloo held a “low-sensory” pop-up clinic.

Among the recommendations:

• A mechanism, such as an accommodation request, should be available on each vaccination website with a phone number so the clinic will be alerted ahead of time and can respond with more information. Someone should also be available at the clinic to follow up on accommodation requests.

• Pop-up locations have been a good way to reach people in hotspots, but long wait times, no seating and “sensory-heavy” environments with ambient noise and music are barriers to people with disabilities. Because pop-ups are run on short notice, they may not give people with disabilities enough time to arrange for transportation or a support person. Rapid lines or special hours for people who can’t wait in line can be implemented alongside the walk-in model.

• All clinics should have a designated contact or “accessibility champion” to answer questions and support people with disabilities, both when the appointment is booked and onsite.

• Mobile and in-home clinics should be available to people who may not be considered “homebound,” but still find the process of out-of-home vaccination inaccessible, even with accommodations.

• People with disabilities should not have to produce proof of disability.

The report also noted that certain disabilities are associated with reduced immune system function. People with these conditions have been at high risk and many have not left their homes or socialized since the pandemic began, leading to substantial negative mental health impacts for them and their caregivers.

Given the risk, the social harms of prolonged isolation and the lack of evidence that there is sufficient protection after one dose for this group, people with disabilities already included in the highest, high, and at-risk groups in Phase 2 of the vaccine rollout should be prioritized for earlier second doses when supply is available, the report said.

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