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‘It’s time to act for disabled people in the North East’

With the COVID-19 pandemic having deeply affected those with disabilities across the region, IPPR North senior research fellow Erica Roscoe tells North East Times Magazine that the Government’s ‘build back better’ mantra must include concerted measures to remove existing inequalities.

Policy in the UK is failing to protect people who need it most.

This was the case even before the pandemic.

These failures are demonstrated by the deep inequalities that characterise the country – from regional inequalities, to inequalities between disabled and non-disabled people.

Individuals experiencing lots of these inequalities at the same time are disproportionately affected by the country’s failure to protect those who need it most. We can see this particularly starkly in the challenges faced by disabled people living in the North East.

In the region, approximately 24 per cent of the working age population is disabled; the highest proportion in England.

At IPPR North, our research shows that prior to the pandemic, disabled people living in the region reported having among the lowest levels of life satisfaction and happiness in England, suggesting life is far from good for too many disabled people in the region.

When we look at the support services offered to disabled people in the North East in more detail, the impact of the compounding inequalities that many experience becomes clearer.

In the North East, the average spend per working age person requiring long-term support is the lowest in England, at more than £5000 per person lower than the national average (£18,600 in the North East compared to £23,990 in England overall).

There are many complexities within social care provision, including wage differences across the country and the lack of a fair funding model for social care.

These complexities ultimately mean that the level and quality of social care provision differs significantly across the country.

This can make things feel like a postcode lottery for those who need to access services, but often without the prospect of winning the jackpot, and instead hoping that the support you’re offered is sufficient to meet your needs.

The pandemic has almost certainly exacerbated the inequalities that people with disabilities in the North East find themselves at the sharp end of.

For many, this has been a period of extended isolation, not receiving the same level of support or access to vital amenities that they had prior to the pandemic.

This is likely to have been a direct challenge to the independent lives that many disabled people live.

For visually impaired people, for example, who often rely on touch to identify things, things are likely to have been particularly tough. Overnight, many visually impaired people faced a new environment where use of touch, an essential sense, was suddenly a ‘faux pas’, not to mention trying to navigate the one-way systems that could only be identified by reading the signage.

In addition to these new physical challenges that have been born out of the pandemic, it’s likely that a higher proportion of disabled people were advised to shield, no doubt resulting in increased periods of isolation and loneliness too.

Before COVID-19, approximately one in six disabled people in the North East reported feelings of loneliness; the highest figure in England outside London.

Sadly, we have seen a nationwide increase in reports of loneliness among disabled people throughout the pandemic. Initiatives to keep in touch with individuals digitally, such as ‘Keeping People Connected’, have been invaluable.

But with the extended lockdowns and tough restrictions across parts of the North East, it’s likely that disabled people in the region have endured prolonged periods of greater loneliness and isolation, which will understandably have taken quite a toll on their mental health.

The Government recently released its National Disability Strategy. Given the wealth of evidence collected over the past 18 months to highlight the overwhelming challenges faced by disabled people, this strategy ought to be able to offer a roadmap out of this situation.

However, while it goes some way to acknowledging the inequalities that exist, it falls short of addressing the interconnected challenges which have deepened as a result of the pandemic. Without acknowledging and understanding these compounding inequalities, it won’t be possible to close the gap.

As it turns its attentions to recovery, the Government must put disabled people at the heart of its plan to ‘build back better’.

But that’s not the only thing that can be done.

This needs to be everyone’s problem, and something that we’re all working to improve, through changes in policy, speaking out on this issue and considering the needs of everyone.

This is essential to provide real equality of opportunity for everyone, regardless of disability or where people live, so that everyone has the ability to live a good life.

Erica Roscoe is a senior research fellow at IPPR North. She tweets @erica_roscoe