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NI disabled people struggling under prejudice linked to virus pandemic

Over 200 take their concerns to NI watchdog

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William Mooney

William Mooney

Alex Maskey is hosting a virtual event

Alex Maskey is hosting a virtual event

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William Mooney

More than 200 disabled people have raised concerns that they are facing discrimination connected to the pandemic, the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland (ECNI) has said.

Calls to the organisation's discrimination advice team this year included employees with disabilities who were worried they were facing redundancy, with their disability-related sick leave being used against them.

Others who were shielding said they felt pressured into returning to work, despite feeling it was unsafe to do so.

In other cases, people exempt from wearing facemasks because of their disabilities complained they were refused entry or services at various settings, including workplaces and schools.

Between April 1 and October 31 this year, the ECNI's discrimination advice team handled a total of 1,761 inquiries.

As with recent years, the majority (721) of queries related to disability discrimination, often looking at reasonable adjustments across a broad range of areas, including employment and education.

A total of 455 calls related specifically to the pandemic, with over half (231) linked to disability discrimination.

Most (147) related to disability discrimination in the workplace, with 48 relating to accessing goods and services.

Anne McKernan, ECNI director of legal services, said discrimination laws should not be forgotten during the pandemic.

"One in five people here lives with a disability. This is a very diverse group of people who are an important part of our society. They are also our family, our friends, our neighbours and colleagues," she added.

"On this International Day of Persons with Disabilities, let us refocus and consider what we can do to improve the lives and experiences of those with a disability.

"It would be great if next year the figures were different".

Parliament Buildings will today be lit up in purple - the officially recognised colour of disability - to mark International Day of Persons with Disabilities.

Patrick Malone, from Disability Action NI, said several events would be taking place to discuss the current policies and challenges affecting people with disabilities.

From 12.30pm Assembly speaker Alex Maskey will host a virtual event discussing how accessible the Assembly is for disabled people, both in accessing the building and reaching key decision makers.

From 2pm an expert panel, including Disability Action NI representatives and Communities Minister Caral Ni Chuilin, will discuss a new disability strategy for Northern Ireland.

The current plan has not been updated since 2017.

Mr Malone added: "That was important before Covid, but it's especially important now with all the added issues of social isolation."

Case studies: 'I have a new lease of life'

Alicia Clarke

After struggling with low mood and anxiety, Alicia made the difficult decision to leave her job last year.

She sought help from Action Mental Health through their ESF Working it Out project in Belfast.

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Alicia Clarke

Alicia Clarke

Alicia Clarke

"I joined Action Mental Health during lockdown and took part in their online programmes. It was great. I joined their virtual choir, took part in history classes, cooking classes and even worked towards qualifications in equality and diversity and motivation and resilience, plus loads of other courses," she said.

"These have provided me with new skills and tools to deal with my anxiety and helped to rebuild my confidence.

"The project provided structure to my day, gave me purpose and the opportunity to learn new skills, while also polishing up old ones.

"I really enjoyed all of it. It helped me find my feet again."

Feeling more confident completing job interviews online, she added: "I left the project to start working again and have just finished a temporary role.

"Due to Covid, I had to work from home for this job, which helped ease me back into employment."

Lesley Caldwell

Living with a learning disability, Lesley started her journey to permanent employment with a voluntary placement at Asda in 2009.

She now works as a home picking shopper in Coleraine, and was deemed a key worker during the pandemic.

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Lesley Caldwell

Lesley Caldwell

Lesley Caldwell

Lesley, who is guided by the Triangle Progression to Employment Service, said: I cannot thank Triangle enough for the help I have received.

"My employment officer continually offered me one-to-one coaching support, involving on-the-job training, where I learned how to break down tasks and complete them within the recommended timeframe."

Of the new challenges of 2020, she added: "Working through the Covid-19 pandemic was strange and hard to adjust to at the beginning.

"Due to new health and safety measures, I can now start my shift in the middle of the night.

"I feel really settled, and this is all thanks to Asda and their commitment to staff and our safety.

"I really enjoy my job and the routine it gives me. I am earning my own money and increasing my independence every day."

William Mooney

Having previously worked for 30 years in the engineering sector, William spent 10 years away from the workforce after suffering a prolapsed disc.

With the added pressure of dyslexia, returning to employment presented a huge challenge.

Turning to the Positive Directions Programme, he was supported in updating his skills and receiving guidance on job searching.

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William Mooney

William Mooney

William Mooney

Within weeks, he successfully secured a full-time role with Lisburn and Castlereagh City Council as a recycling operative.

"I am honestly delighted to be employed in a permanent role. Without the help and support of the programme and the team at Clanrye Group, I don't think I would be here," he said.

"They helped me to gain confidence in using technology such as the internet and how to reply to emails, which I had avoided learning until then.

"Even during lockdown, Clanrye kept in touch with me through phone calls, continually encouraging me and supporting me in my applications."

He said the job had given him "a new lease of life" during the challenging months of the pandemic.

Belfast Telegraph


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