Disability Support Work during COVID-19 – Survey Findings

New research from the University of Melbourne and UNSW Canberra has important findings on how to prevent COVID-19 transmission in the disability community.

A new research report Disability Support Workers: The Forgotten Workforce in COVID-19 describes the findings from a national survey of 357 disability support workers (DSWs) conducted online between May and June 2020.

Researchers from the Disability and Health unit at the University of Melbourne and the University of NSW Canberra conducted an online survey of disability support workers about their initial experiences of COVID-19. Workers were asked about physical distancing, access to PPE, training and testing and the financial and psychological impacts during the pandemic.

Respondents ranged from 18-75, 83%were women, and 31% were over 50. Like health and aged-care workers, DSWs can’t physically distance given the close personal contact required in their job. In the week before the survey, they worked with an average of six different people with disability.

Download Report – DSWs: The Forgotten Workforce in COVID-19
View Report online – DSWs: The Forgotten Workforce in COVID-19
Download Fact Sheet 1 – Keeping Support Workers Safe
Download Fact Sheet 2 Financial and Psychological Impacts

The survey also found these workers face financial hardship. Of those who took time off due to illness, only 47% were paid, reflecting the workforce’s casual nature. Thirty-four per cent faced financial difficulties like not being able to pay an electricity, gas or phone bill on time or being unable to pay their rent. The researchers have made recommendations, including updating PPE guidelines, proactively reaching out to DSWs so they can receive the required training, ensuring they have access to pandemic leave and making sure expert health staff can provide back-up if needed.

The survey reflects the situation for workers when PPE was just being made available to workers after a marked shortage in March and April. With cases now rising in Victoria, on 17 July PPE became compulsory for DSWs in hot spot areas.

“COVID-19 really emphasised in my mind how overlooked the disability sector is. At the beginning the government kept talking about health care workers and nursing homes but I never heard any mention of disability. It left us in unknown territory and felt like we had just been forgotten and weren’t as important as other workers” (Survey participant).


The project was funded by the Melbourne Disability Institute
The University of Melbourne.


For more information:
md-i@unimelb.edu.au