'Over half of Covid deaths have been disabled people'
Michaela Hollywood is a disability activist based in Northern Ireland. She has a genetic condition, spinal muscular atrophy, which impacts mobility. Michaela spoke with Emily Horsfall, Equal World’s global campaign officer, about how she became a disability rights advocate, the exclusion of people with disabilities throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and why they must be included in the recovery.
Emily: Can you please introduce yourself?
Michaela: I’m Michaela Hollywood. I am 31 years old, and I live in County Down in Northern Ireland. I am a wheelchair user and I am also deaf.
Emily: So what motivated you to campaign on disability rights matters and the different issues that you’ve done some work around?
Michaela: I suppose this goes back to when I was about 17, and I was just kind of preparing to move from GCSE to A level [examinations in the UK]. And up until that point, my education had been tough, primarily for health reasons. Throughout my childhood I had long periods of time in hospital, and that obviously has its challenges. I was going through a transition to adulthood medically but also educationally, and I was given an opportunity, just kind of an opportune moment, to go to the House of Commons and attend a report launch.
And that report was specifically looking at access to physiotherapy for people with conditions like mine. I was kind of a naïve 17-year-old going in. By the end of that hour-long launch, I had realised the power of conversation and the power of story.
Within a few years of that meeting, I met another politician closer to home and I remember him saying to me, “Michaela, you’ve got a real gift with writing and with words, but you don’t need to just write. You can make change, but you need to go and learn how to do it. ”
If you’re broadcasting emergency information, sign language interpretation should be on every channel.
Emily: So how would you rate the government’s response to Covid in terms of inclusion of people with disabilities? How considered do you think they were in being inclusive for people with disabilities?
Michaela: I think the first thing I need to say there, as someone who is also deaf, is to not have sign language at government briefings is appalling and should never happen – and it should especially not happen during a pandemic. You’re broadcasting emergency information. You’re having an emergency broadcast. Sign language interpretation should be on every channel.
I’m from Northern Ireland, and I was really lucky to live in a region where there was sign language interpretation in two languages and not one, and I think that is a testament to the Northern Ireland Executive for being inclusive and for working with disabled people in the way they do. I know a lot of the ministers very well, including the health minister, and I’m immensely proud for the most part in how they’ve conducted themselves.
But I’m also left very frustrated by how it’s been handled UK-wide, and also worldwide to an extent. I’ve been saying a lot since this pandemic, and I say it again: if I was in New Zealand, I would be safe. The zero-COVID strategy in New Zealand is not perfect, granted, but it’s keeping people safe.
There is no economy without disabled people. There’s no economy with dead people. And I keep coming back to that, and I know that’s a simplistic view of what is going on right now, but it’s a very important one.
Over half of COVID deaths have been disabled people. That fact isn't reported on the news.
Michaela: What we’re forgetting is that over half of COVID deaths have been disabled people. That fact isn’t reported on the news. It’s not routinely talked about. It’s not mentioned in briefings. And we have to ask ourselves why, and what does that mean for us as a society, and how can we use that to move forward? Because COVID is a real opportunity to level the playing field once and for all for disabled people.
There are a lot of areas in the vaccination programme and in the easement of restrictions where I think disabled people have been forgotten. I do think we were at the forefront of people’s minds at the beginning: when lockdown was initially implemented it was to save people like me, and it was to try and make sure that we didn’t get COVID. But I think that’s all been forgotten.
Sightsavers’ Equal World campaign is calling for the rights of people with disabilities to be upheld around the world. Join the campaign to be a part of the fight for disability rights and connect with like-minded campaigners in our Facebook group.