Disability support providers move online to help clients feel connected during coronavirus isolation

For many people living with a disability, NDIS group programs are their main social outlet. But due to COVID-19 social distancing restrictions, many have been forced to shut down or adapt.

Some NDIS providers are moving services online to ensure people with a disability can maintain connection with other people during the coronavirus pandemic.

Some NDIS providers are moving services online to ensure people with a disability can maintain connection with other people during the coronavirus pandemic. Source: Supplied

Thousands of Australians with disabilities rely on supported day programs to socialise and get out of the house, but coronavirus social distancing restrictions have made that almost impossible.

Service providers have been forced to cancel these services, leaving many without a lifeline to the outside world, or adapt.

A significant number of people with disabilities or chronic illnesses are considered high-risk for serious effects from COVID-19, making the need for socially distant support crucial. 

Western Sydney resident Tanuj Singh lives with cerebral palsy and usually attends a group day program multiple times a week. As part of the program, participants learn new skills, like cooking and woodwork, and go on social outings.

Mr Singh at home during a virtual support session with another participant.

Recently, however, he’s been catching up with friends and learning new skills via video chat after his provider, Therapy Care, moved a number of their services online.

“I would have liked to get out, [but] because the pandemic is on at the moment I can’t get out anywhere,” he told SBS News from his home in Colebee, where his support worker has helped him set up a computer and Microsoft Teams. 

“I haven’t missed any day program … It’s good in a way, because you stay connected.”

During the pandemic, Mr Singh connects virtually with carers and other participants from his group most days.

He has a morning conference call, where people from the group catch up about what they’ve been up to, before moving on to supported activities like art, cooking, and gardening, with supplies delivered to his home.

“We went to Taronga Zoo the other time, and we saw the lions, elephants and meerkats,” he said, describing a virtual tour of the zoo. “We drew the animals afterwards.”

Therapy Care’s social and recreational specialist, Karlie Scurr, told SBS News the virtual programs are customised for each participant depending on their interests, functional capacity, and level of contact they are comfortable with. 

“With different disabilities, some of them are very vulnerable and susceptible to catching things such as COVID-19 so it was really important that the priority was the health of our participants and responding in a way that meant we could provide services that are critical to their independence and their functional capacity as well,” she said.

“Participants were really excited to hear that we were launching something virtual, particularly for those that are in a program five days a week, to go from being completely absorbed in services to having no services at all is a really big adjustment. 

“A big thing … is maintaining those friendships and relationships.”

For Melbourne resident Annabel Carr, who also lives with cerebral palsy and uses a mobility scooter, participating in an NDIS-run choir group is one way she remains connected to friends.

Since the social distancing restrictions came into place, the With One Voice choir, which operates in 24 locations across Australia, has been meeting once a day via Facebook Live.

“It’s the conductor singing by themselves at home, and everyone is singing at home as well,” the 34 year old, who lives by herself, told SBS News.

“It’s better than nothing because, even before coronavirus, [the choir] was the one outlet where [some members] got to go out and see people.

“Some of my best friends I met through choir.”

People with disabilities have previously called for support workers to receive the same coronavirus protections as aged-care workers, with fears a shortage of personal protective equipment would put them and their carers at risk.

Meanwhile, earlier this month, the peak body representing non-government disability support providers warned that many services would not be able to survive the pandemic without greater financial support from the government.

Chief executive of National Disability Services (NDS), David Moody, said it was too early to say whether moving services online would go far enough to cover income lost from forced cancellations.

“The capacity for this form of support to continue to be provided successfully will at least in part be a function of making sure it is viable from an economic point of view,” he said.

“Because providers, despite the economic situation, are trying new things [doesn’t mean] the concerns the NDS has been raising for some time about the impact of the pandemic on the ability of providers to remain viable has disappeared. Quite the contrary.”

For disability service provider Able Australia, which has locations in Melbourne, Queensland, Tasmania and the Australian Capital Territory, confronting the pandemic has meant a combination of online and socially-distant in-person activities.

Instead of moving their social support services completely online, participants who are eager to get out of the house have volunteered to do deliveries for others who are homebound.

The benefit of this approach, Tasmania community manager Sheridan Krysik explained, is the chance for participants to experience a brief moment of human interaction.

“It’s the participants knowing there’s a delivery coming and they can look out the window and wave to them when they drop it off,” she said. “Even if it’s a very short bit of socially-distant engagement, it’s still seeing another face.”

Able Australia participants baking Anzac biscuits at home over the weekend.
Source: Supplied

On Friday, participants were delivered supplies to take part in a baking challenge which will be judged on creativity.

“We also have a sports equipment library, so what we have is a catalogue of different equipment for them to use and they can order it and have it delivered,” Ms Krysik said.

For many providers, the new way of doing things will likely continue in some capacity once the pandemic comes to an end. 

People with disabilities living in remote and rural Australia is one group that may benefit long term from the technology being put in place, Mr Moody said.

Therapy Care will also continue with some element of virtual socialising, both to increase participants' computer skills and ease the burden on those with mobility issues who are often unable to attend the day program.

“Being able to teach people with a disability how to use technology has been amazing … it’s just another really important skill that they’ve been able to learn,” Ms Scurr said. “It would be a no-brainer to make sure we keep some form of virtual support.”

People in Australia must stay at least 1.5 metres away from others and gatherings are limited to two people unless you are with your family or household.

If you believe you may have contracted the virus, call your doctor (don’t visit) or contact the national Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080. If you are struggling to breathe or experiencing a medical emergency, call 000.

SBS is committed to informing Australia’s diverse communities about the latest COVID-19 developments. News and information is available in 63 languages at sbs.com.au/coronavirus.

Published 29 April 2020 at 7:10am, updated 30 April 2020 at 11:48am
By Emma Lawson, Maani Truu