Exploring human rights informed responses to the COVID-19 pandemic in Victorian disability services

Dr Joanne Watson1, Dr Elena Jenkin1, Associate Professor Patsie Frawley1, Associate Professor Angela Dew1

1Deakin University, Australia

Intellectual disability services continue to face unprecedented challenges responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. We set out to develop an understanding of how Victorian disability service providers are balancing the human rights of the people they support with protection of their health in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.

We undertook a broad desktop review of grey and emerging empirical literature published between January 2020 and August 2020, focused on the experiences of disability service providers carrying out their role within the context of the pandemic. This review guided the focus of 17 interviews with Victorian service providers, disability advocates and regulatory bodies, between August 2020 and October 2020, a period of extensive lockdown in Victoria. These interviews were thematically analysed.

Participants reported violations of the human rights of those they supported. These included reductions in stimulating activities and opportunities for self-determination, as well as barriers to communication (e.g., tactile sign language), due to restrictions in physical interaction. A lack of accessible pandemic related public health information for both people with intellectual disability and their supporters was also reported. Participants reported concern regarding violence and abuse for people with intellectual disability, due to isolation and a lack of oversight during extended periods of ‘lockdown’. Positive outcomes of supporting people during the pandemic included the provision of support to foster existing relationships using online communication platforms, as well as staff spending more time getting to know those they support and exploring new activities. Some reduction in behaviours of concern and associated restrictive interventions were also reported.

Research participants shared diverse experiences, innovate practice and concerns, informing a range of recommendations. The authors will share these recommendations within the context of this paper.


Jo Watson, PhD is Course Director of Deakin’s Post Graduate Disability and Inclusion program. Jo’s research, centred around the role of the UNCRPD in supporting the human rights of people with intellectual disability is informed by 30 years working as a Speech Pathologist in Australia, the US and Asia.