Social Isolation and Loneliness Among People with Disabilities Pre- to Post-COVID

December 14, 2021

Last month, RTC:Rural presented information on Social Isolation and Loneliness Among People with Disabilities before COVID-19 restrictions. This research report explained the difference between social isolation and loneliness, and how they can lead to health risks. It told us that people can feel social isolation and loneliness in different ways, and for many reasons.

The report compared the social isolation and loneliness experiences of people with disabilities to people without disabilities. The results were alarming. They showed that people with disabilities are more than twice as likely to feel lonely than people without disabilities. Barriers like not having a job or transportation are reasons why. These are hard for many people with disabilities to access. This can keep them from being active in their communities.

In this month’s report, RTC:Rural researchers led by Dr. Catherine Ipsen dig deeper. This research report looks into social isolation and loneliness among people with disabilities during COVID lockdowns. This data was collected in 2021, one year into the pandemic, but before vaccine roll-out. We will call this new data post-COVID and the previous data pre-COVID. In this report, researchers compare the two to see what has changed.

Recent research tells us that rates of social isolation and loneliness have increased in the general population due to COVID-19. However, this month’s RTC:Rural Research Report shows that people with disabilities reported being more socially isolated but less lonely pre- to post-COVID. This is interesting because usually more social isolation means more loneliness.

The researchers give two possible explanations for this result. First, there were fewer opportunities for anyone to gather in person post-COVID. People with disabilities often experience barriers to engaging in the community. So, they may not have felt as dramatic a shift in in-person opportunities. Second, that online opportunities to get together effectively replaced many in-person activities. COVID restrictions lasted such a long time that we have connected online with others even more. Many people with disabilities have become more skilled and confident in the digital world. The barriers may not be as big as they were before.

Centers for Independent Living (CILs) have done great work to organize and encourage online opportunities. When COVID started, CILs quickly moved core programs online. This helped people with disabilities gain digital skills. It also helped people with disabilities connect virtually to share their experiences and help each other.

A great example is Living Well in the Community (LWC). This workshop helps people with disabilities maintain a personal quality of life. Some CILs were already offering LWC in-person before COVID. They supported each other to move to online delivery. One CIL created video instructions on how to take part in a virtual meeting and shared it with other CILs. Having the instructions on video helps make it accessible for many people with disabilities. The video showed how to join a meeting, use the chat feature, raise your hand, and turn on captioning. These features are often crucial for people with disabilities to communicate online.

LWC participants supported each other to learn and stay engaged with the group. With fewer access barriers, participants felt more confident online. They joined other online groups. They held their own virtual meetings outside of LWC workshops. They did online searches on their own. By helping people with disabilities build their online skills, CILs helped build community. In the process, they helped address social isolation and loneliness for people with disabilities.

However, people with disabilities are still more isolated and lonelier than people without disabilities overall. Many people with disabilities are at higher risk of complications from COVID-19. The pandemic required lots of changes. Some have led to new opportunities for people with disabilities. But we must recognize that barriers still exist. More work is needed to build upon the efforts of CILs and continue improving online accessibility and availability, and the digital skills of people with disabilities. The positive effects will continue long after COVID.

Researchers at RTC:Rural continue to work on reducing social isolation and loneliness with Project CONNECT. Project CONNECT is a newly funded project led by Dr. Rayna Sage and Project Director Tannis Hargrove. Through this project, researchers, CILs, and people with disabilities develop an online curriculum on building social networks. The aim is to teach people with disabilities the online and in-person skills to connect with their communities and reduce social isolation and loneliness. Be on the lookout for more information on Project CONNECT coming soon!

To learn more, read the Research Report: Social isolation and loneliness experiences among people with disabilities before and during COVID-19.