Blog: When you’re the wrong sort of ‘vulnerable’

Kathleen Kennedy, deputy co-chair of UNISON’s national disabled members’ committee, writes about about how COVID-19 has seen disabled people re-classified as vulnerable and the damage this causes

Head and shoulders photo of Kathleen Kennedy

I’ve been a local government worker and a UNISON member for 15 years.

I have cerebral palsy and arthritis, which means I sometimes struggle to walk and to communicate. I had a stroke five years ago and I’m more susceptible to infection. If I got COVID-19, I dread to think what might happen.

But the government don’t seem to care about my individual circumstances. Instead, they have divided disabled people into two new groups – extremely vulnerable people and vulnerable people.  Only extremely vulnerable people were told to shield.

Apparently, I’m just plain old vulnerable. I’m not extremely vulnerable, according to the government.

I don’t trust this government and I wasn’t about to take any risks with my health. So I took the decision to shield anyway. I stayed at home throughout lockdown and went out as little as possible.

But because I’m in the just-plain-old-vulnerable category I wasn’t entitled to food deliveries and I got no help during lockdown. Thank goodness I had my mum to support me. But many disabled people won’t have had anyone to help.

Lots of UNISON disabled members are in the same boat as me. They have underlying conditions, but the government has said they aren’t extremely vulnerable so they don’t need to shield.

They’ve ended up prisoners in their own homes, scared to leave the house and relying on family and friends for help.

Prisoners in their own homes

Dividing us into vulnerable and extremely vulnerable also meant employers conveniently forgot we were disabled. The Equality Act went out of the window during the pandemic.

Some UNISON disabled members were forced to continue to go to work during COVID because they were in the ‘wrong’ vulnerable category.

Employers said that only people who had a letter from the government to prove they were extremely vulnerable were allowed to work from home.

This could have been avoided if the government hadn’t made up these two new categories and had stuck to calling us disabled workers.

Employers know disabled workers have rights and disabled workers are entitled to reasonable adjustments. Making up new names just doesn’t help us.

We’ve learned a lot from this pandemic. But for disabled people it’s been downright scary how quickly the government forgot about us and trampled on our rights.

One of the first things they did was suspend the law that means we are entitled to social care. Some of our own UNISON members were left with no one to help them get dressed and ready for work in the morning.

The government also made it easier to forcibly detain people in mental health distress. And there were some terrible stories in the press about rationing ventilators and denying life-saving resuscitation for disabled COVID patients.

This isn’t the mark of a country that cares about disabled people. It’s proof that disabled people’s rights can be chucked on the bonfire when the going gets tough.

Not the mark of a country that cares

This is why UNISON is calling for the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Disabled People to be incorporated into UK law. If we did this, then in a future crisis, the government wouldn’t be able to walk rough shod over our rights.

They would have to stick to the Equality Act and they would need to make sure any decisions they took were checked to make sure they didn’t make life worse for disabled people.

This pandemic has been devastating for disabled people. We are twice as likely to die compared to non-disabled people.  But losing our rights as equal citizens has also been devastating for us.

I’m glad UNISON is fighting to make sure this never happens again.