AT Beyond the Virus Part 1: The Pandemic’s Ripple Effects on AT Users

Click to share this on facebook.Click to tweet this blog post.

As a community that has navigated the stormy seas of the pandemic, we’ve witnessed firsthand how our reliance on assistive technology has been tested and transformed in ways we never could have predicted.

A line of dominoes falling over on a black table. Beneath the Where it's AT logo, text reads "AT Beyond the Virus Part 1: The Pandemic's Ripple Effects on AT Users"

What Makes This Notable?

Many surveys conducted following the pandemic, showed people with disabilities around the world were disproportionately affected by the hardships of COVID-19; Assistive Technology (AT) users amongst groups hit the hardest.

AT users reported (in this survey published by the National Library of Medicine in 2021) that the following three main areas affected their use of AT during the pandemic:

  1. Inaccessible methods of communication
  2. Lack of Planning/preparedness
  3. Availability of AT

What Triggers This in 2024?

Leaders in the AT community are called on to address gaps of service during the pandemic and prepare a roadmap for future crises. Check out the video below published by the World Health Organization (WHO) calling for a plan of action to be made on all levels:

In this two part series, we will explore the three main areas that were hardest hit and create a standardized plan.

Top Three AT-User Affected Areas

Two people looking concerned trying to communicate, one using sign language and one holding their hand to their hearing aid. Quote bubbles on top are covered by a red X

1. Inaccessible Methods of Communication

  • Prominent disparities have emerged in government responses to the pandemic, highlighting a crucial role for community leaders within service hubs. Addressing the gap, especially in the context of improved and more accessible communication to our community members, stands out as a key concern.
  • Initial information about the pandemic lacked proper accessibility options, leaving out many members of the AT community, as their usual services and repairs were unattainable. This resulted in a chain of insufficient information. Policies must be implemented to ensure accessible options for all AT users regarding the pandemic, guaranteeing that all community members receive timely and equal information.
  • Relying mostly on “suspect” social media posts, AT users had to wait until local news outlets started providing good information. Thus, many rumors began circulating throughout the AT community.
  • The bulk of accurate information came from local disability networks and immediate family/friends. This further deepened the need for AT community leaders to create a set protocol for future pandemics on how to ensure proper information is accessible and accurate. Check out this table that goes deeper into the needs of the community during the pandemic.

Recognizing the challenges posed by inaccessible information, it becomes clear that there was also a pressing need for improved planning in the delivery and maintenance of assistive technology during times of crisis.

A cartoon man with upper limb difference and a prostheses showing a whiteboard with a checked off checklist

2. Planning for Delivery & Maintenance of AT

  • There was a Direct impact on accessible services for the proper utilization of AT. Even in the midst of the altered everyday life during the pandemic, there emerged a significant demand from AT users for access to local service hubs. These hubs were crucial for prompt responses to AT repair and customization requests, as well as providing essential support services such as deliveries and training.
  • For those in remote or distant areas, accessing crucial AT services became even more important due to disruptions in supply chains. This resulted in prolonged wait times for assistance, impacting functionality and intensifying underlying impairments. Staffing changes at local AT service hubs further contributed to delays in essential repair, customization, and direct services.

A distinct requirement for future pandemic planning, we must ensure that access to services, repairs and staffing remain top priority.

A woman using a reverse walker stands next to a building with a sign reading "AT Rentals"

3. Availability of Appropriate Technology Rentals

  • A disruption in the general supply chain for AT during the pandemic combined with employee shortages and center closures, resulted in many AT users experiencing lack of access to crucial technology rentals at the service hubs in their areas.
  • AT Users reported noticing a need for service hubs to decentralize and provide timely, affordable and consistent access to good quality disability-related services, including continued access to any available technology rentals.

Community leaders are urged to create protocols during times of crises that can monitor whether community members are being adequately reached and included in response activities. Creating a board of reliable community members could assist greatly in ensuring this is done.

What Now?

Given this information, community leaders and service hubs statewide are encouraged to develop a comprehensive Pandemic Plan for future public health emergencies.

In Part Two of this series, we will outline the steps that can be taken to create this plan.