People with disabilities are facing severe loneliness due to COVID-19 - opinion

Social distancing requirements during COVID-19 meant that people with disabilities couldn't get the help they needed, and they are still suffering from it.

A lone man wearing a protective face mask sits at an unusually quiet State Library on the first day of a lockdown as the state of Victoria looks to curb the spread of a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Melbourne, Australia, July 16, 2021. (photo credit: REUTERS/SANDRA SANDERS/FILE PHOTO)
A lone man wearing a protective face mask sits at an unusually quiet State Library on the first day of a lockdown as the state of Victoria looks to curb the spread of a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Melbourne, Australia, July 16, 2021.

Across the United States, the problem of loneliness has grown increasingly dire. For years, doctors and psychologists have been warning that the gap between the social relationships we would like to have and the ones we actually have is widening.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing lockdowns led to an unprecedented increase in loneliness, leading public health officials to declare it an epidemic in its own right. Try, though many of us did, to maintain some semblance of normal interaction, phone calls and Zoom cocktail hours could not replace real, in-person, human connection.

But even amid these much-needed national conversations about the importance of social interaction, one demographic is often excluded from the discussion: people with disabilities.

The pandemic has had a disparate impact on individuals with developmental differences, affecting their ability to communicate and socialize with others. For much of the pandemic, people with disabilities were often separated from their caregivers to ensure adequate social distancing.

People who struggle with communication had a hard time reading facial expressions with masks. Remote environments often lacked ASL interpreters or captions. And between staffing shortages and visitation restrictions, people in hospitals and long-term care centers often experienced little human connection at the exact moment they needed it most.

 Illustrative image of a mask on the globe.  (credit: UNSPLASH) Illustrative image of a mask on the globe. (credit: UNSPLASH)

Most Americans are aware that people with developmental differences often face barriers due to social stigmas, but the obstacles for people with developmental and intellectual disabilities are often wider than that. The obstacles are structural and require a concerted, coordinated effort to overcome.

For example, many people naturally develop friendships at work. Yet, this isn’t always accessible for someone neurodiverse: only about 35% of adults with disabilities between the ages of 18-25 have access to employment. In Los Angeles, where experts find that most people need to earn almost triple the state minimum wage in order to afford rent, this creates a significant challenge for people with disabilities.

In fact, California’s Department of Developmental Services estimates that only 16% of people with disabilities live in their own homes. It’s perhaps little surprise then that people with disabilities comprise 30-40% of America’s homeless population.

How can they be supported?

THANKFULLY, RESOURCES exist that can provide those with developmental differences connections, housing and employment assistance. Currently, about 620,000 Americans with disabilities receive support through day programs. Supportive housing is needed, but the current model of such programs is far from perfect.

Such housing is often located in the suburbs, where there are fewer people and less access to transit, limiting the residents’ connection to the wider community. Furthermore, most supportive housing options still suffer from an institutional feel, which means the policies are established by the center and optimized for Medicaid or Medicare funding, not allocating sufficient resources to provide what the residents truly need: connection, inclusion, and independence.

Supportive housing can be an excellent resource for people with disabilities. But currently, most programs don’t go far enough to address the financial and social needs that are deeply important to them and their families.

Support for people with disabilities must be wrap-around and all-encompassing: it needs to provide job training, it should offer cooking classes and other skills training to foster a sense of autonomy and accomplishment and it should provide the opportunity for the residents to socialize, not just with other people with disabilities, but with the broader community, as well.

Few supportive housing options of this sort exist. In Los Angeles, that will soon change.

A revolutionary housing community called The Village is currently under development in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood, with groundbreaking slated to begin this summer. Developed by Cornerstone Housing, the property is located in the heart of the city to help enmesh its residents in the diverse and vibrant social fabric of Los Angeles.

The Village will be a model for the rest of the US and, perhaps, the world. Adults with disabilities deserve more support across all levels of society, especially in areas of housing and in-house services.

The Village will serve as a nexus for residents, neighbors and business to gather and grow in a beautiful, communal space. It will provide its neurodiverse residents with individualized support services that affirm autonomy and independence, and a variety of opportunities for personal and professional growth. Perhaps most of all, it will provide inspiration for future developers to take on projects driven by their values, not profits, just as Cornerstone is driven by Jewish values.

People with disabilities want what we all want: connection, meaning and friendship. They need choice, independence and the autonomy to live the life they want. When we seek to tackle the issue of loneliness in our society, let us not forget our friends with disabilities, who have gone ignored for too long.

The writer is executive director of ETTA and Cornerstone Housing for Adults with Disabilities.