'I've lost all the independence I've worked really hard for': The pandemic's isolating effect on disabled people

  • Video report by ITV Wales reporter, Hannah Thomas

A woman who has impaired vision and hearing said she has lost all her independence because of the pandemic.

Natalie Williams from Ebbw Vale has Usher Syndrome and can only go out for exercise or to the shop if her husband, Gareth, is with her.

The 38-year-old said she relies heavily on lip-reading and so that has become a problem, with people wearing masks to stop the spread of coronavirus.

It comes as research from disability charity Sense revealed that two-thirds of disabled people in Wales are experiencing 'chronic loneliness' during lockdown.

Natalie often finds herself stuck at home alone if her husband is out and work and the baby with its father. Credit: ITV Wales

Natalie was diagnosed with Usher Syndrome in 2012. She cannot see or hear well enough to use the phone or internet independently to get in touch with others.

Before the pandemic she had support from a Communicator Guide which helped her access her community and grow in confidence.

However, as the pandemic took hold, this service stopped, and Natalie found herself homebound. 

She said: "Even going shopping. I can't go unless I'm with Gareth and with everyone wearing the masks, it's really hard.

"I lipread constantly. And obviously, my husband works, my daughter goes to her dad's, so I'm in the house on my own. I've lost all the independence I've worked really hard for."

Her husband has adapted his work life so that he is at home more often for Natalie but acknowledged the situation has been difficult.

"I set up my own business in the end to try and have a few more days at home, to try and help out with the baby, and things like that," Gareth said.

"But yeah, it has been tough. There are people going through this that live alone, how hard this must be for them is beyond comprehension. The isolation alone must be terrifying."

Richard Kramer, chief executive of Sense, said disabled people "have often felt forgotten" throughout the pandemic. Credit: PA Images

Research by the charity Sense found that 69% of disabled people in Wales said they are now chronically lonely, after they described feeling lonely "always" or "often".

It has sparked fears of a mental health crisis facing the population of 14.1 million disabled people living in the UK, after the charity said cases of loneliness has jumped by a quarter in the last year for those who were already disproportionately affected by the issue prior to the coronavirus outbreak.

The charity said feelings of chronic loneliness "go on for a long period of time", whereby people suffer "constant and unrelenting feelings of being alone, separated or divided from others, and an inability to connect on a deeper level".

Around 37% of survey respondents said they wanted to see government's prioritise tackling mental health issues caused by the pandemic, over the NHS, economy, and education, once the vaccination rollout is complete.

Sense is encouraging people to sign its pledge calling for more investment in services offering mental health support for disabled people. Credit: PA Images

Richard Kramer, chief executive of Sense, said: "Throughout the pandemic the needs of disabled people have been overlooked, and they have often felt forgotten.

"The government must recognise the severe impact the pandemic is having on disabled people and improve the support available, so they are not left isolated and cut off from society."

Sense is encouraging people to sign its pledge calling for more investment in services to tackle loneliness and offer mental health support for disabled people.

A Welsh Government spokesperson, said “We are acutely aware of the impact the pandemic is having on the mental health and well-being of disabled people.

 “To support people to stay connected with family and friends during the pandemic, we have provided additional funding to the third sector, local government, and for mental health and emotional support services. Our regulations also allow people to form an “extended household” if they live alone. 

“The Loneliness and Social Isolation Advisory Group which includes Disability Wales, Samaritans Cymru, MIND Cymru and Wales Vision Forum is focusing on the impact of the pandemic on loneliness and isolation.”