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Living with a physical disability during the pandemic

Living with a physical disability during the pandemic

[Two people in wheelchairs performing different exercises]
Exercise during isolation is important for people living with physical disabilities. (Supplied Photos)

Academic lead for the Canadian Disability Policy Alliance and Queen’s researcher Mary Ann McColl (School of Rehabilitation Therapy, Public Health Sciences) says people with disabilities face unique challenges based on the current circumstances imposed by COVID-19.

These include:

  • Depending on a personal support worker to come every day to perform intimate care duties, such as toileting and personal hygiene
  • Needing expendable supplies such as surgical gloves, antiseptic wipes or catheters, to perform hygiene routines
  • Being afraid to leave the house at the best of times, never mind now when a life-threatening virus is a foot

“These are just a few of the scenarios that confront people with a variety of different types of disabilities in the current crisis,” says Dr. McColl. “Not only are people with disabilities particularly vulnerable during times of instability such as this, but difficult times can also substantially add to their challenges.”

Exercise at home

Something critical that could add to their independence and well-being at home is exercise. As part of the advice on how to properly self-isolate, public health authorities have also been prescribing people a round of daily fitness whenever possible. However, there is one segment of the population that is not being properly addressed, according to Queen’s University researchers Amy Latimer-Cheung, Canada Research Chair in Physical Activity Promotion and Disability, and Jennifer Tomasone (Kinesiology and Health Studies)

The research duo, along with Kathleen Martin Ginis (University of British Columbia) have launched a free, evidence-informed, telephone-based physical activity coaching service for Canadians with a physical disability.

Run by the Canadian Disability Participation Project (CDPP), Get In Motion provides Canadians with a physical disability an opportunity to speak with a Physical Activity Coach (PAC) who provides support to start or maintain an at-home physical activity program. Physical disabilities supported by Get in Motion include spinal cord injury, multiple sclerosis, stroke, cerebral palsy, fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, post-polio syndrome, or an amputation.


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Support for staying healthy

“Canadians with a physical disability are high risk group for COVID-19,” says Dr. Tomasone (Kinesiology and Health Studies). “Self-isolation is critical to the well-being of individuals with a physical disability. With social distancing restrictions, being active is proving difficult for all Canadians, especially individuals with a physical disability.” 

Dr. Tomasone, a leading researcher with CDPP, says the coaches will assess what their clients currently have available in their home and work with them to set goals and create a plan. 

“A challenge for persons with a physical disability is often not knowing where to start or not realizing they have the tools right in their home to stay active,” she adds. “It’s also a great way to a create social connection among Canadians who are self-isolating.” 

Strength and endurance

Building and maintaining strength and endurance helps with everything from getting into and out of bed, cooking, cleaning, preparing for work and maintaining good hygiene. Physical activity coaching may be especially helpful for coming up with creative solutions to stay active for people with a physical disability whose in-home care worker is unable to meet clients in their home. 

“Twenty per cent of the population is living with a disability, many of whom do not have a partner, spouse, or children for support,” says Dr. Latimer-Cheung, leading researcher with CDPP. “This means they are home and completely on their own. We need to place an emphasis on the health of persons with a physical disability as they are a high-risk group for contracting COVID-19 and other chronic conditions.” 

However, people with disabilities can teach us a great deal about adaptability, resourcefulness, ingenuity, and interdependence.  People with disabilities often act as a bell-weather group, facing difficult circumstances before the general population does. As such, they can provide an opportunity to help policy makers and service providers to anticipate future needs. 

To sign up for Get in Motion, visit the website or email

This article is part of the Queen's Gazette series "Confronting COVID-19".

Researcher Profile
Former Canada Research Chair in Physical Activity Promotion and Disability

Amy Latimer-Cheung

Health promotion for Canadians with mobility impairments: this research will lead to the development of physical activity guidelines for Canadians with a physical disability and strategies to help them meet these guidelines.

Confronting COVID-19

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