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Tackling The 'Silent Epidemic' Of Loneliness

17/07/2017 13:32
Inti St Clair via Getty Images

The chronic sense of isolation and loneliness felt by many disabled people was brought into stark focus by research from Sense for the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness.

Long-term loneliness and social isolation can have a devastating effect on anyone, and can come about for a variety of reasons - including bereavement or job loss.

Disabled people go through the emotional fallout of these types of events as much as anyone else. But they are disproportionately affected by loneliness because of the additional barriers, misconceptions and lack of understanding that many experience.

Sense and Leonard Cheshire are among 21 leading disability charities highlighting just how big the issue of loneliness among disabled people is.

The Sense research revealed that more than half (53%) of disabled people surveyed said they felt lonely. Just under a quarter (23%) said they experienced loneliness on a typical day.

One of the other sad findings was that around a quarter of more than 2000 people surveyed were reluctant to start a conversation with a disabled person. Reasons including "fear of causing offence" or "feeling uncomfortable".

Tackling misconceptions about disability and increasing understanding of a wide range of conditions is part of the solution to loneliness among disabled people. This starts in school and must be built on in our communities - through awareness raising work that tackles stigma and prejudice.

But there are practical barriers that compound the loneliness of disabled people. The need for breaking down these barriers has never been more pressing or relevant.

Inappropriate housing, lack of social care support, barriers to employment, education or training opportunities and the problems disabled people can face when using public transport can all feed into loneliness and social isolation.

Disabled people are far more likely to be out of employment, education or training. For those who see these options as right for them there needs to be more help. For example, expansion and reform of the Department for Work and Pensions' Access to Work scheme is just one of the measures necessary - if we are to avoid countless disabled people continuing to be locked out of the workplace.

The case of Sue, a wheelchair user after a stroke, featured in Sense's "Someone cares if I'm not there" report illustrates what inappropriate housing means in reality. Living in an inaccessible house - she struggled to physically leave her home, was limited in her ability to socialise there, and struggled to develop friendships in her neighbourhood as a result of her accommodation.

Sue said, "I haven't been upstairs in my own house for two years, and I have to sleep in the lounge."

Her experience is not unique. All too often disabled people are living in accommodation that has not been properly adapted, is not wheelchair friendly, offers little privacy, or is unsuitable in other ways. Isolation as a result can have serious consequences for their health, independence and full participation in communities.

Our last research on this issue found more than half (52%) of people with a mobility problem say that they do not have doors or hallways wide enough for a wheelchair.

House builders, local authorities and political parties all need to commit to making sure the next generation of homes and our towns and cities are fit for purpose for disabled people - wherever they live.

Meanwhile the crisis in funding for social care is almost never out of the news and continues to be a key political battleground.

Finding a long-term social care solution is fast becoming one of the defining challenges of our generation. At Leonard Cheshire, we continue to call for a cross-party commission as the best way to tackle this vital issue.

We estimate that just under half (48%) of disabled adults who say they need social care do not receive any support at all.

Disabled people tell us that some access to social care, or to a different type of care, may make them feel more confident, less isolated and lonely, and lead to better mental health.

Lack of social care is leaving thousands of disabled people trapped in their home, isolated and unable to take advantage of a range of opportunities, which includes something as simple but essential as making new friends.

The 'silent epidemic' of loneliness has multiple causes and tackling it requires a shift in unhelpful attitudes people may hold.

It also requires real political commitment at a national and local level to drive forward lasting change, to remove the barriers and difficulties that disabled people repeatedly face in their day-to-day lives.

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