An opinion piece for Source Kids by Dean Cohen, CEO of Flying Fox*
Social isolation is an all too familiar experience for people with a disability. It is a debilitating condition caused by a society that has simply not done enough in the pursuit of inclusion.
In the face of Covid-19, we have all experienced a taste of social isolation, albeit nominally and temporarily. In this time, we have all been reminded of the importance of social connectivity now that for many of us it has been taken away.
This shared experience must catalyse an enhanced empathy for those who are too often excluded from society. Now that many of us have dipped our toe in the river of loneliness and isolation, we have an inescapable responsibility to address this issue for all in society, both immediately in the face of the crisis, as well as into the future when the world returns to normal.
Society has never adequately pursued the right solutions to these challenges, but crisis begets creativity and there is hope that out of this crisis will emerge out-of-the-box thinking and problem-solving that will ensure that we have a more inclusive society when all of this is over.
Fortunately, there is good news. Those who are already being creative are shaping many success stories of connection and belonging across society and specifically for people with a disability. For example, through many online engagement programs, we are seeing social connectivity not just being maintained but also emerging in new and exciting ways.
Through my role as the CEO of Flying Fox, I have seen many young people with a disability thrive during this time. We have a participant who is a Flying Fox veteran; she’s been on 10 of our sleep-away camps since 2016 and has grown into an energetic and sociable young adult. She has worked hard on her social skills in this time too. She loves jokes, loves running activities for her friends and is developing into a leader. This week, she facilitated an online activity for 50 people. They told jokes and shared stories. The session was simply hanging out with a bunch of mates and it was run by a young adult who would never usually have an opportunity to lead.
Another one of our participants loves music and loves making friends. She has a complex cognitive disability and is non-verbal, requiring a high level of support to engage in fun activities. She is always front and centre when there is singing and dancing involved. Her younger brother joined her in one of our online workout sessions and supported her to participate. The two of them danced and laughed. At the same time their parents embraced the opportunity, went for a walk and had a reenergising break.
My personal highlight has been one of our participants telling everyone about her day. I have been on 6 camps with her and I have never heard her voice before. As an organisation, we have never found the right approach to support her to find her voice during our face-to-face camp programs but in our online programs she has been communicating with confidence and clarity.
This crisis has catalysed a rethink of the way in which our organisation supports our participants and it has opened us up to new innovative ideas that are supporting our participants to thrive in ways we never imagined possible.
We must do the same as a community. We have an opportunity to develop structures and strategies that ensure that all people with a disability are afforded the opportunity for a much stronger sense of belonging and connection than before Covid-19. We must work together as a community to tackle social isolation, otherwise this crisis will endure for people with a disability long after Covid-19 is eradicated.
Dean Cohen is CEO of Flying Fox – a NDIS registered Victorian youth-led organisation which provides awesome social opportunities for young people with a disability. Their team of passionate young adults strive to create life- changing camp experiences enabling young people with a disability to have fun and make friends in a safe environment. For more information visit www.flyingfox.org.au
*The opinions in this article are those of the author and may not reflect those held by Source Kids