Dear Health Ministers- Remember us? People with disabilities, the most vulnerable and ignored in the vaccine rollout?

February 17, 2021

The Council of Canadians with Disabilities (CCD) is alarmed that the current COVID-19 vaccination roll out strategy has not taken into consideration people with disabilities living in the community. The current provincial and territorial timelines for access to the vaccine have not applied a disability lens which would consider at risk disabled individuals, their families and personal care attendants who live in the community, not in congregate care settings. Overlooking the disability community when creating vaccination plans further isolates those in the community, and puts many in danger of severe illness, further disability, or even death if they, or their caregivers are to contract COVID-19.

CCD reminds national health and provincial/territorial health policy developers that unfounded assumptions about disability often lead to the inappropriate responses and conclusions about people with disabilities, especially the assumption that people with disabilities are mainly patients residing in care facilities, such as long-term care, assisted living residences and elderly people with age-related limitations.  When we examine the priority groups in Canada’s COVID-19 immunization strategy, the aforementioned groups have been included. However, at risk people with disabilities who are living in the community are conspicuously absent.  Many people with disabilities have been invisible or an afterthought for policy makers too often during the pandemic response.

Some people with disabilities have serious underlying medical conditions, such as chronic lung disease, a serious heart condition, or a weakened immune system, which make us vulnerable to a severe illness if we contract COVID-19.  Others with disabilities are made vulnerable because environmental circumstances and systemic barriers—especially racism and poverty—hamper our efforts to socially distance, follow guidance on hygiene, access quality medical care, or use personal protective equipment (PPE). 

Many Canadians with disabilities rely on close contact with others in order to go about their daily tasks. Statistics Canada in The Daily (2020-07-06) reported that, “Many Canadians with disabilities rely on both formal and informal support. In 2017, almost half of those with a disability received help with daily activities because of their condition. This includes help preparing meals, getting to appointments or running errands, or basic medical care at home. Over one-third of those who needed regular help relied solely on family, friends or organizations from outside their household.”  This reliance is related to safe social distancing, hygiene protocols and proper use of PPE. Further this informal support network of family, friends and volunteers are not considered as “front line” and continuously put themselves at high risk to provide essential services to the most vulnerable living in community, that Government cannot or has not. 

“While striving to continue living independently in the community as a disabled womxn, I am not only putting myself at risk, but also my attendants – as well as everyone else that provides me assistance, whether that be at the grocery store or on public transportation. Disabled persons are among the most marginalized in Canada, and yet I feel that we are disproportionally not accounted for within vaccine roll-out initiatives, which simply reaffirms systemic barriers readily imposed upon us.” stated Chloée C. Godin-Jacques, National Educational Association of Disabled Students (NEADS), Ontario Director, Second Vice-Chair, Fund Development Committee Co-Chair, and NEADS Representative to CCD. Although vaccination rollout and planning is a provincial and territorial matter after the federal government provides vaccines to jurisdictions, CCD and NEADS believe that all levels of governments need to prioritize the most vulnerable Canadian citizens, including people with disabilities.

People with disabilities live in all communities and come from all backgrounds. We are parents, grandparents, students, scientists, caregivers, gig workers, professionals, tradespersons, and front-line workers. Some of us were born with our disabilities and others have acquired disability later in life.  As we follow public health advice during the pandemic, many people with disabilities are further isolated and put at risk by COVID-19 responses and polices—including the recent vaccination plans.

Heather Walkus, 1st Vice Chair, CCD states, “Many people with low vision, blind and deafblind, are at higher risk due to the increased reliance on the help and support of others. This includes, but is not limited to transportation, assistance with general mobility (shopping, medical appointments, etc.) and even the general reliance of depending on others for social distancing. As the general population discovers the option and benefits of such things as grocery deliveries and curbside pickup, many persons with disabilities have no other options and are now facing expensive lengthy delays.” 

On December 15, 2021, The Canadian Council of the Blind, the Foundation for Fighting Blindness and the International Foundation on Ageing, sent a letter to Prime Minister Trudeau outlining the risks and issues impacting the blind, low vision and deaf blind. "As primary stakeholders to this vulnerable community, we are asking you, as decision-makers, to take the time to understand their situation and to ensure that people living with vision loss be given priority with respect to COVID-19 vaccination."

Canadians with disabilities were the last group provided a small stipend by the Government of Canada of $600 to those who are Disability Tax Credit (or one of three other criteria)i  eligible to offset extra costs caused by the pandemic. Not every Canadian with a disability qualified for this benefit. We recognize that other federal programs including the Canada Emergency Student Benefit and Canada Student Grants provided additional funding for some disabled students. However, a significant number of persons with disabilities across Canada have been left more disadvantaged during this pandemic.

When the announcement of safe and effective vaccines was made, people with disabilities, especially those most at risk of contracting and becoming seriously ill with the virus, felt hope. However, as it became clear that our at-risk community members were not included in vaccination plans, many in the community felt despair and further forgotten by governments. We appreciate and acknowledge the priorities set for those living and working in congregate care settings, however, Canadians with disabilities need to be included in the plans to vaccinate vulnerable citizens early. For those of us who have been overlooked so far—people with disabilities living in the community—are in harm’s way and this harm, COVID-19, can be lethal.

CCD reminds Canada of its commitments under the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, particularly Article 10 (Right to Life) and Article 25 (Health).  Article 10 states:

States Parties reaffirm that every human being has the inherent right to life and shall take all necessary measures to ensure its effective enjoyment by persons with disabilities on an equal basis with others.

Article 25 states:

States Parties recognize that persons with disabilities have the right to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health without discrimination on the basis of disability.” 

The federal government is responsible for procurement of the vaccinations and has a duty to take leadership in regard to protecting vulnerable citizens. Provincial and territorial governments are responsible under human rights legislation to ensure that vaccines are delivered to people with disabilities in a timely manner and that folks with disabilities are in the vaccine delivery plans. We call on all levels of government in Canada to look at their vaccination plans and reconsider where at risk disabled Canadians, their families and caregivers fall into these plans.

For more information, contact:

Jewelles Smith, Communications & Government Relations Coordinator

About CCD: CCD is a national human rights organization of people with disabilities working for an inclusive and accessible Canada.

Mission: The Council of Canadians with Disabilities (CCD) is a social justice organization of people with all disabilities that champions the voices of people with disabilities, advocating an inclusive and accessible Canada, where people with disabilities have full realization of their human rights, as described in the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Mandate: The Council of Canadians with Disabilities (CCD) unites advocacy organizations of people with disabilities to defend and extend human rights for persons with disabilities through public education, advocacy, intervention in litigation, research, consultation and partnerships.  CCD amplifies the expertise of our partners by acting as a convening body and consensus builder.