The forgotten sector in the COVID-19 fight

Posted on April 3, 2020 in Inclusion Debates

Source: — Authors: – Opinion/Star Columnists

It was a random act of kindness that surprised and delighted the residents at a group home in Toronto for intellectually disabled people.

In the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak, staff at the group home in the Mount Dennis neighbourhood in Toronto’s west-end opened the front door one day last week to find a package of toilet paper sitting outside.

The home was stocked up, but it sure was nice of have neighbours who care, says Brad Saunders, chief executive officer of Community Living Toronto, which operates the facility.

The gift of toilet paper was a bright spot in what are extremely unsettling times for people who are intellectually disabled, their families and the staff who support them.

Indeed, the outbreak is the challenge of a generation for everyone in this forgotten sector.

Community Living Toronto (CLTO) serves 4,000 people, including 600 people in residential facilities, of which 300 are in group homes scattered across the city. Normally, about 700 people participate in day programs. Also, it employees some 1,400 staffers and countless volunteers. (Full disclosure: I am a member of the Community Living Toronto Patrons’ Council, which supports and advises on the work of CLTO)

Across Ontario, there are more than 100 Community Living organizations serving 12,000 people with intellectual disabilities.

Without exception, front-line workers throughout the province working in Community Living facilities are facing tremendous stress and anxiety about their own health and safety and that of the people they serve.

Unlike workers in hospitals and health clinics, though, Community Living staff are not considered health-care workers. That means they have to scramble for protective gloves, masks and extra help for their clients.

They’re experiencing shortages of personal protection equipment and must also deal with trying to explain to their clients why they can’t have their normal routines or why they must practice social distancing.

Group homes pose particular concerns. With day programs, schools and community centres closed, group home residents have few places to go. As well, residents have difficulty understanding why they can’t go outside, why they can’t go to work, no longer visit their families or have their families visit them.

And while some professions can work from home, people supported by Community Living staff have no choice — they’re needed to help with tasks such as shopping for groceries, preparing meals, ensuring proper medications are taken and assisting with personal hygiene.

Still, staff is coming to work, leaving their families to help the people who rely on them for support, many of whom are facing increased challenges during this unprecedented period of forced closures of day programs, supervised excursions and simple pleasures, such as going bowling or to a movie.

“We are lucky to have so many committed individuals who are not able to work from home,” Saunders said this week in an interview.

Sadly, no one seems to see them. They’re invisible, under the radar while performing tough jobs in tough times.

Worse, the longer this situation goes on, the greater is the risk to the stability of this critical workforce.

One bright spot is the Ontario government, which has stepped up to help, acknowledging of the impact of COVID-19 on the developmental services sector and pledging $40 million in additional financial support for immediate relief. Another is the private companies that have provied supplies, such as much-needed hand sanitizers and disinfectants.

Still, like the person who brought a package of toilet paper to the Mount Dennis group home, there’s much individuals can do to lend a hand in small ways, such as offering to help cook a meal. Or by being patient when people with intellectual disabilities, who are receiving their monthly support payments this week and will be in stores buying food and supplies, don’t fully understand the idea of social distancing.

At the same time, there’s a desperate need of supplies for front-line workers, including hand sanitizers, gloves, masks, disposable gowns, new and unopened crafts supplies, board and card games plus coupons and gift certificates.

Such help is needed to show this important sector that it is no longer forgotten.

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