Social Isolation and Loneliness Among People with Disabilities

November 29, 2021

People who are socially isolated and lonely can experience more risks to their health, like heart disease or stroke. People with disabilities, older adults, and people with medical conditions are even more at risk. Social isolation and loneliness are related, but are not the same. Social isolation is when you don’t have people to be with or talk to. This can happen when people do not get to connect with friends, family, or neighbors. Loneliness happens when you feel alone, no matter how many people you may have around you, because you don’t feel connected to them. If someone feels lonely for a long time they can have trouble feeling any other way.

When COVID-19 hit and we were asked to stay at home, people started talking about the dangers of loneliness and isolation. Even before COVID-19, RTC:Rural researchers were studying social isolation and loneliness experienced by people with disabilities. This had not been researched much, and RTC:Rural  wanted to know if it was a problem. They also wanted to compare if people felt different depending on where they live. So, they looked at how people felt who live in urban places, like cities, and rural places, like small towns or in the country. Again, this research began before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Researchers started by looking at social isolation and loneliness in all adults. Then they looked just at people with disabilities. What did they find? That people with disabilities are more than twice as likely to feel lonely than people without disabilities.

People may feel lonely because they do not have a job. Having a job gives people others to talk to and money to spend in the community. Another reason for loneliness may be having trouble going places. A car, good bus lines, or other ways of getting around give passage into the community. Both are hard for many people with disabilities to access.

Rural people often have even fewer social activities in the community and a harder time getting around than people who live in cities. People in rural areas are usually more isolated. But in this research project, people in rural areas did not say they were lonelier. This shows why it is important to think about how social isolation and loneliness are not the same and how and why each may be experienced differently among people.

We know access to jobs and transportation are top barriers people with disabilities face in both rural and urban areas. Not being able to work or get around makes it harder to do the things they want to do. So, making it easier for people with disabilities to work and be part of the community is important to lower social isolation and feelings of loneliness, wherever they live.

To read details about this research, check out the Social Isolation and Loneliness Among Rural and Urban People with Disabilities Research Report. It gives great information about what social isolation and loneliness were like for people with disabilities before the COVID-19 pandemic. But has anything changed since then?

RTC:Rural researchers already knew it was a big problem for people with disabilities, so during the pandemic, they spoke with their partners at Centers for Independent Living (CILs) to find out how people with disabilities were doing during the lockdowns. CILs found out that talking online was an important way for people to stay connected and not feel as lonely. This made researchers want to find out more.

Because researchers at RTC:Rural looked at social isolation and loneliness before the COVID-19 pandemic happened, they already had information to compare to after COVID lockdowns happened. They did more research to look deeper into social isolation and loneliness during COVID lockdowns. What they learned from this research, paired with feedback from CIL staff and people with disabilities, led to something exciting: Project CONNECT. This project will help teach people with disabilities to connect with others online and in-person as a way to respond to social isolation and feelings of loneliness. You can learn more about this on the Project CONNECT blog post.

Social isolation and loneliness are common and can happen to anyone. People with disabilities are among those at the greatest risk. RTC:Rural and CIL partners are working to find ways to keep people with disabilities connected with their friends and family. But there is more to be done to help all people with disabilities to not feel alone.