Research project seeks to understand COVID-19 justice barriers for people who live with disabilities

By Terry Davidson

Law360 Canada (February 8, 2021, 2:34 PM EST) -- Researchers at a western Canada university have embarked on studies into how measures to combat COVID-19 have impacted access to justice for Ontarians with disabilities living in care centres and people with mental disorders in British Columbia’s prisons and psychiatric facilities.

Thompson Rivers University (TRU) law professor Dr. Ruby Dhand is one of the researchers who in January launched the two projects. Each is being run in collaboration with various legal and advocacy groups. The goal, to use legal and scientific research to promote legislative change.

 Dr. Ruby Dhand, Thompson Rivers University law professor

Dr. Ruby Dhand, Thompson Rivers University law professor

The Ontario project, Dhand told The Lawyer’s Daily, will also involve a TRU science professor and a law professor from the University of Windsor and will be run in collaboration with the Toronto-based ARCH Disability Law Centre (ARCH).

According to a description on a TRU webpage, the project will examine “COVID-19 barriers to justice for those who live with disabilities in these congregate care settings,” such as long-term care homes, group homes and assisted living facilities.

Dhand said restrictions put in place to combat the health crisis have resulted in a lack of care, community supports and “communication devices,” as well as fallout from visitor bans and reductions in standard services.

“We’ve recognized that people with disabilities, as this pandemic has evolved, who are living in congregate care settings … have really been disproportionately impacted,” said Dhand. “It’s become clear that over 80 per cent of these COVID-19 related deaths have occurred in these long-term care facilities. … They are experiencing complex forms of discrimination.

“[The] purpose of this research to highlight those voices, because this will be a quotative, multidisciplinary research project. … We recognize that, throughout this pandemic, the voices of people with disabilities have really be silenced, and it doesn’t seem like they’ve been prioritized.”

Dhand also talked about the controversial emergency “triage” protocol put together by the province, which would reportedly allow doctors in intensive care units to decide who gets a bed and who doesn’t in the event hospitals become overwhelmed by the health crisis.

“A clear access to justice issue has also been Ontario’s triage protocols,” Dhand said. “As a result of the triage protocols, a person with a disability will be deprioritized. The protocols state that they will be deprioritized for a ventilator [if their] future quality of life is determined to be poor because of their disability. So, disability advocates have raised concerns about the discriminatory impact of the triage protocols on people with disability in congregate care settings. … Access to health care is an access to justice issue.”

In January, ARCH issued a statement about possible temporary suspensions to Ontario health-care legislation that “would effectively permit doctors to withdraw treatment from a patient without the consent of the patient or family” if hospitals end up having “more patients than resources.” This would accompany the province’s triage protocol, ARCH goes on to state.  

The Accessibility for Ontarians With Disabilities Act Alliance recently said that such a thing would be like “recklessly tap-dancing in a constitutional minefield.”

Dhand hopes the research she and the others conduct will help prompt legislative change.

“This proposed partnership comes at a critical moment in ARCH’s advocacy efforts, and we want to be able to help; we want to be able to have this research create disability-informed responses to the pandemic and post-pandemic planning.”

Turning to the second research project, Dhand says this B.C.-based initiative is examining COVID-19 transmission risks and barriers to justice for those being detained in the province’s mental health facilities, prisons and detention centres.

It is in collaboration with a number of community organizations, including the West Coast Justice Society and the Elizabeth Fry Society.

“People with mental health and substance use issues who are in mental health facilities and prisons and detention centres have an increased potential of death,” said Dhand. “They experience much higher likelihood of getting COVID-19 because these are congregate care facilities, where people live in crowded and confined spaces with high transmission risk. And there is also a lack of resources [and] a lack of [personal protective equipment]. And people with mental health and substance use issues have already pre-existing health issues and vulnerabilities.”

Dhand said they can also “experience consent and capacity issues” and, in some cases, “may not even understand what the public health measures mean.”

She also cites “a lack of community-based care and diversion options” and an increase in the use of solitary confinement and lockdowns since the start of the pandemic.

Both projects will run for up to two years, Dhand said.

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