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The COVID-19 pandemic takes a particularly heavy toll on Canadians with disabilities and more efforts are needed to ensure they're included in national efforts to respond to the crisis, the minister overseeing accessibility issues said Friday as she appointed an advisory group to take on the task.

Disability Inclusion Minister Carla Qualtrough said disabled residents have been sounding alarms about a host of concerns related to the outbreak, which has already killed at least 550 Canadians and sickened a minimum of 22,000 others. In a statement announcing the advisory group, Qualtrough said greater efforts are needed to ensure disabled voices are heard during a troubling time.

"For some persons with disabilities, underlying medical conditions put them at greater risk of serious complications related to COVID-19," Qualtrough said in the statement. "Others face discrimination and barriers in accessing information, social services, and health care. For others, the need for self-isolation and physical distancing create additional challenges.

"As we continue to address the COVID-19 outbreak, our priority will remain helping persons with disabilities maintain their health, safety, and dignity."

Qualtrough did not elaborate on specific systemic barriers in place, but members of Canada's disabled community have been sounding alarms since the beginning of the outbreak.

Early public health messages and briefings at all levels of government often failed to include accessibility measures, such as sign language interpretors for the deaf or simplified messaging for those with intellectual disabilities.

Since then, more concerns have been raised about access to overtaxed health-care resources, the availability of educational supports for disabled students, and the greater vulnerability of those living in confined settings such as prisons, homeless shelters and long-term care institutions.

At one assisted living facility in Markham, Ont., the Executive Director confirmed an outbreak had infected 10 of 42 residents and two staff members. Shelley Brillinger said news of the outbreak prompted the rest of the staff at Participation House to walk off the job, leaving residents without the care they need.

"Our residents are the most vulnerable in society," she said. "... They don't have a voice, and my message would be it's our responsibility to speak up for those who can't speak for themselves and ensure that they have the care that they deserve."

The 11-member advisory group, consisting of academics and organization leaders spanning a range of physical and intellectual disabilities, has been tasked with apprising the government of the barriers their communities face and ensuring their needs are adequately addressed.

Committee member Bonnie Brayton, Executive Director of the DisAbled Women's Network Canada, said the issues before the group are matters of equality and fundamental access to human rights.

"As we continue to address the COVID-19 outbreak, our priority will remain helping persons with disabilities maintain their health, safety, and dignity." Disability Inclusion Minister Carla Qualtrough

She said the proliferation of the novel coronavirus has laid bear many systemic issues that dogged the community for decades, but have taken on increased urgency as the disease continues to spread.

"What the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us is that the question of equality rights for people with disabilities apparently is still on the table in the legal system, in the health system, and I think in the soul of Canadians," Brayton said in a telephone interview. "It's the last piece of our really becoming the country we need to become in terms of human rights."

Other advocates welcomed the federal governments' recognition of the need for action, but expressed reservations about the impact such a move could have.

David Lepofsky, founder of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance and a long-time crusader for accessibility rights, said federal governments do not have jurisdiction over most of the programs with the greatest impact on the lives of disabled residents.

"Only provincial governments can take 95 per cent of the action people with disabilities desperately need to avert the disproportionate hardships that the COVID-19 crisis inflicts on them, including the horrifying risk that their disability could be used as a reason to deny them medical services during rationing," he said. "We're disproportionately vulnerable to get this disease, to suffer its harshest impacts and then to slam into serious barriers in our health care system."

Robert Lattanzio, Executive Director of the Arch Disability Law Centre, shared Lepofsky's concern.

He said there is currently no uniform approach to disability inclusion during the COVID-19 crisis. While he applauded the federal government for acknowledging as much, he expressed hope that the advisory group would continually seek input from those without seats at the government table.

"The disproportionate impact of this pandemic on persons with disabilities is undisputed, but it is playing out very differently across different provinces, territories, cities, and towns," Lattanzio said. "We need voices from people with disabilities who are on the ground and who understand the complexity and nuances of what is actually happening."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 10, 2020.

— With files from Nicole Thompson in Toronto