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'It's been a challenge': Pandemic takes a toll on people with intellectual disabilities

By Daniela Altimari, The Hartford Courant on

Published in News & Features

HARTFORD, Conn. — For Nick Sinacori, 2020 was going to be a pivotal year. The 25-year-old West Simsbury man, who has an intellectual disability and autism, was poised to leave his parents' home and live on his own for the first time.

Then the coronavirus crisis struck.

"It's been challenging," Sinacori said. "I was really looking forward to my freedom."

People with intellectual disabilities have been especially vulnerable to the social and emotional upheaval brought on by the pandemic. Restrictions on daily activities, mask mandates and the other rules designed to stop the spread of the virus contribute to mental stress, especially among those who have autism, experts say. Public health guidelines limiting social interaction deepen isolation, for both individuals with disabilities and their families.

There are heightened health risks as well. Many people with intellectual and developmental disabilities_a broad category that includes Down syndrome and other chromosomal conditions as well as cerebral palsy — are immunocompromised or have underlying medical issues that make them more susceptible to infection. They often live in group homes, where physical distancing is harder to maintain.

They also are more likely to die: An analysis of insurance claims conducted by FAIR Health, a non-profit focused on bringing greater transparency to healthcare costs, found that people with intellectual disabilities and developmental disorders have a coronavirus fatality rate three times higher than those without such a disability or disorder.

 

"The rates of infection and mortality nationwide have been quite high in comparison to the general population," said Win Evarts, executive director of The Arc Connecticut, the state affiliate of the nation's largest advocacy organization for people with intellectual disabilities.

"I'm happy to say because of the proactive work of the state (Department of Developmental Services), the numbers in Connecticut are better than the national numbers by quite a bit," Evarts said.

During the first wave of the pandemic, the department shifted some its services online, a move that advocates say saved lives, even as it kept more people with disabilities away from work, day programs and other support networks. "Every action has a reaction and the byproduct of that was increased isolation," Evarts said.

According to statistics compiled by the department, 549 individuals served by DDS have contracted the coronavirus; 30 have died. Connecticut's overall COVID-19 death toll is approaching 4,900.

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