By Estee Rothstein
As a nation, we’ve made great strides over the last few decades in improving inclusivity for people with disabilities. However, the pandemic has highlighted the gaps that still exist when it comes to certain communities, such as children with autism, when accessing the services they need.
From school systems to digital health services, many organizations are having to re-evaluate how to better accommodate these needs. Awareness of what kind of actions must be taken, however, is the first step to securing a better and more inclusive environment for people with disabilities post-pandemic.
Schooling and Virtual Learning
COVID has changed the entire education landscape. Children went from interacting and playing with their classmates to a life of isolation as lockdowns forced them to stay home. This was of course difficult for all children, but especially for those with disabilities.
If we take children with autism as an example, many rely on structure, routine and predictability in order to navigate through the day. Unfortunately, this became very difficult to maintain when stuck at home and away from the familiar rhythm of the school day. This can result in skills regression in children, which can seriously impact their development.
To counter this, children that suffer from skills regression need targeted therapy sessions that identify skills gaps and then tailor treatment and measure progress towards a goal. For many families, they rely on the school system to provide some or all of this therapy. Unfortunately, many parents have found that public schools have been lacking when it comes to the support they can offer with this during the pandemic.
The problems have ranged from a “one-size-fits-all” approach to virtual learning that hasn’t given enough thought to the specific and diverse needs of children with disabilities, to a slow and often difficult transition to delivering targeted sessions virtually. As a result some parents have taken up lawsuits to try to force local governments to provide more resources to these communities.
The pandemic has accelerated the trend towards telehealth services, such as virtual doctors and remote therapy sessions. While this has enabled us to continue accessing vital physical and mental health services during lockdowns, these platforms must consider the specific needs of disability groups and design bespoke solutions.
Careful thought must be put into the design of these apps and websites. For example, if we take people with autism as the use case again, the user journey through a platform should be clearly signposted, and the language used should be precise, without the use of metaphors or idioms. The look and feel of each page should be clean and minimalist, only using graphics or images where necessary, in order to prevent sensory overload.
For people with specific physical needs that have difficulty using a smartphone or computer, the barriers to access telehealth are even greater. Therefore, providers must consider other solutions to help these groups access services. This can include voice activation prompts within mobile apps, or services provided via traditional landline telephones, which can be easier to use and operate.
There is no single solution to the inclusivity problem. However, as we enter the post-pandemic world, we need to start planning how to better accommodate the diverse needs of diverse communities.
A sensible first step would be for local governments, school boards, healthcare providers and other institutions to include specific sections in their emergency response plans, which details how they will adapt their services during an emergency to suit the needs of disability groups.
Health and social care experts and people with disabilities should be involved in this planning to ensure it’s fit for purpose and is tailored to specific needs. A way forward with this is to analyze the gaps in services faced by disability groups during the recent lockdowns and the impact this had and then work backward to design solutions that would prevent this from happening during future emergencies.
Ultimately, while it’s tempting to view the pandemic as a once-in-a-generation event, we must not let complacency set in and fail to act on the learnings from this. We could be faced with an even more severe public health emergency in the near future, so therefore need to design robust systems and response plans now, to ensure we face the next emergency better prepared and better able to provide the support that disability groups rely on.
Written by Estee Rothstein, BCBA and Executive Director at Golden Care Therapy, a New Jersey based provider of in-home ABA therapy for children with autism. Estee also regularly contributes to discussions around autism as both a public speaker and writer.