Every day, one member of Baltimore’s Jewish community makes his lunch and waits for the bus to take him to Jewish Community Services for his usual skill-building assistance. He has continued to do this throughout the pandemic.
“Today, he wakes up every day and asks us if he can go back to work yet,” said Scott Siwicki, senior manager of Support Services for Individuals with Disabilities: Residential Services at JCS.
This client is just one of the many adults with disabilities whose challenges are aggravated by the pandemic.
Discerning the problem
Disabilities encompass mental illnesses, physical limitations and developmental differences. One person who’s seen the impact of isolation on these is Andrea Fenwick, senior manager of employment support services at JCS.
Of her 80 clients, those with mental illnesses are likely to face depression from the isolation. Then, anxiety also comes from economic strains and, for those unfamiliar with technology, from frustration contending with a screens-only world. When meeting in person becomes common again, anxiety will make the transition back difficult. Although Fenwick is constantly calling clients to touch base with them, it can be difficult to keep track of whether someone is taking their medications if they are locked in at home.
Those with physical disabilities see fewer accommodations now. “Those with physical disabilities can’t find public transport as easily now, there are a lack of goods and services available to them, and trying to access shopping is less satisfying now,” Fenwick said. “Some people used to get excited about their day to go out and shop, but now they can only use Amazon.” In addition, if someone has a visual or hearing impairment, that can complicate their options for virtual programs.
For people with developmental disabilities, one factor that can make the pandemic more difficult is compromised immune systems. Individuals with developmental disabilities are four times more likely to contract COVID-19, according to a study in the Disability and Health Journal in late May.
One of Siwicki’s greatest overall concerns is what the aftereffects of the pandemic will be.
“It’s the unknown that we all face,” he said. “There’s a loss of income, of job stability and what things will be like when we return.”
Lastly, the strain on personal protective equipment resources has particularly hurt those with disabilities. JCS goes through 400-600 masks a week for the disabled residents of the nine homes and 56 supported living facility units they work with. Even when there are enough masks, it can be hard to get everyone to wear them. Many residents don’t understand the importance of masks. To encourage their clients to wear them, JCS has invested in Ravens and Orioles masks.
Proposing a solution
Fenwick’s program offers activities to help keep depressed individuals engaged while also keeping them on track to get back into the world of employment.
To keep those with physical disabilities active, JCS has a calendar of meaningful, interactive online classes specifically for people with varying abilities. Some include a dance class on Wednesdays, a cooking class on Monday evenings and a fitness program on Monday mornings.
Fenwick noted that most learning is remote now. This was more of a challenge at first, when it interrupted individuals’ normal lifestyles. People have since adapted, but they will have to transition again when events return.
Despite the challenges, there are many success stories. For example, just before the pandemic, JCS trained one individual with a disability in mechanics and then he landed a job at Jiffy Lube. He was furloughed, but the business brought him back a couple of months ago. JCS sent a job coach to work with him and help him acclimate to the workplace.
In addition to JCS, other organizations providing resources for those with disabilities include the Baltimore Jewish Abilities Alliance, the Macks Center for Jewish Education’s Gesher LaTorah program for students 5-21, CJE’s Jewish Advocates for Deaf Education, the Baltimore County’s Office of Therapeutic Services and the Autism Society of Baltimore-Chesapeake.
And for those looking to help out, one way is through JCS’s call center, where volunteers call and chat with residents.
“These calls have made a world of a wonder of difference,” Siwicki said. “We had a client who broke their monitor, so they couldn’t go to online events, but the guy who had been calling him dropped a new one off right on his porch.