Kevin Heffernan, Extern Outreach Support Service (EOSS)

While the Coronavirus pandemic and lockdown has intensified many of the challenges faced by those with a learning disability, it has also shown us the very best side of our communities as well.

As we begin to emerge from over 16 months of uncertainty caused by the Covid-19 Pandemic, and its subsequent lockdowns, spare a thought for those members of our communities living with a disability who could not get access to the services they needed to support their normal day-to-day lives.

That was certainly the reality for many of those we have been supporting within the Extern Outreach Support Service (EOSS), in the Mid-West, who are living with a range of challenges and conditions, including learning disability, mental health issues, who are hearing impaired, or may have Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

A recent survey by Inclusion Ireland, the national association for people with an intellectual disability, found that 38% of people with disabilities and their families had experienced an increase in behaviours of concern during lockdown, while 36% indicated an increase in loneliness and 33% an increase in anxiety. There was also a reported rise in people feeling angry or withdrawn as a consequence of the restrictions imposed.

On a more positive note, 22% of respondents indicated that their family member was actually happier at home - although in some instances, this gave rise to concerns that a return to normal day service and new routines might in itself become a challenge.

Others also indicated significant concerns about regression in skills during this period. For people with disabilities, the risk of isolation while continuing to ‘cocoon’ from the virus, was very real during lockdown.

Grown up girl holding hands of middle aged female sitting look at each other having heart-to-heart talk

Many people and their families using day services, outreach or respite expressed concern about the lack of central guidance regarding how their services, so essential to their everyday lives, were to continue in the case of them, or their support staff, contracting the virus.

Extern were part of a very small number of services continuing to operate in the Mid-West to support people. Staff continued to provide face-to-face sessions, phone calls and video conferencing to those still requiring our service.

Working within disability is rewarding but challenging on most days. Continued patience, presence and empathy are required to support the individual through each session. To this end, my colleagues and I created new approaches in ensuring continuity of service during the pandemic – for example, weather permitting, we moved the vast majority of our activities outdoors.

This work was not without its challenges, of course. Some of the people we support have intellectual disabilities and autism, and a smaller percentage are non-verbal. Therefore conveying information to them in a way that was honest and respectful, but not alarmist, was challenging for the team.

Routine for a person with autism is very important, and when that routine is significantly disrupted it can lead to challenging behaviour and deterioration in mental health.

Those within the disabled community have always been a resilient group, and pushing through the challenges thrown up by the pandemic was the only option for the vast amount of families who access our services.

When the country went into lockdown in late March 2020, it was highlighted in sharp relief that if a standard of equal dignity and equal participation is not met in ‘normal’ times, it can rapidly become a casualty in times of crisis.

In parts of the country some people with autism reported encountering significant problems with measures such as wearing facemasks and queueing outside shops due to restrictions on capacity.

Blind and visually-impaired people too reported encountering problems with social distancing in public spaces; this resulted in hostility and negative attitudes from non-disabled people towards them, perhaps due to a misunderstanding or ignorance of their disability.

Young woman lending support to young girl with homework

Thankfully, neither myself, nor any of my colleagues witnessed any of this type of prejudice in our day-to-day work during lockdown; on the contrary, the people of Limerick and the surrounding counties proved to be incredibly generous in the support they offered.

Likewise, our local HSE Disability team played a pivotal role in supporting Extern to tailor individual services as required.

In one example, one of our team who had been working with a service user with an intellectual disability, was presented with a situation where this person became anxious and had an outburst in a café while out in public.

My colleague had supported them to build relationships within their community, and this was of vital importance when, far from adding to the challenges faced by this person, the staff in the establishment where the incident happened were instead helpful and compassionate. This helped lead to a more dignified conclusion.

This was just one of the many examples I have witnessed of people stepping up in very small ways, and making it known to me, that they want to help.

These gestures, no matter how big or small, make all the difference to the dignity and happiness of someone who might struggle to manage even in the best of times.

We can only hope that the compassion and patience which has been displayed over the last 16 months will carry on throughout 2021, and beyond.

Visit here for more details on the Extern Outreach Support Service (EOSS)