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Were Persons With Disabilities Ensured Equal Rights And Dignity During The Pandemic?

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This post is a part of YKA’s dedicated coverage of the novel coronavirus outbreak and aims to present factual, reliable information. Read more.

People with disabilities have always been vehemently stigmatised and marginalised by the so-called abled society. They are relegated to an insignificant and powerless position within society and subjected to social inequality and social stratification. There has been a significantly long and disturbing history of oppression and attitudinal bias against people with disabilities that continues even till the present day.

From Galton’s theory of eugenics that questioned ‘Could not the undesirables be got rid of and the desirables multiplied?’ to Charles Darwin’s theory of the ‘survival of the fittest’, where social Darwinists were sceptical that offering assistance to a person with a disability would cripple the natural struggle for existence and lead to degeneration of the human race, attitude towards disabilities has been mortifying and ethically repulsive.

This problem further enhances in certain situations of crisis such as a natural disaster or a pandemic, like the one the world is grappling with currently. With the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, the rights of those with disabilities have faced a major setback. Their situation has worsened, with even their basic human rights for everyday survival being denied to them. For those who are assisted by someone else for their daily chores, social distancing seems to have added to their drudgery. It pushes them to the periphery of loneliness, which, in turn, takes a toll not only on their regular life but also adversely on their mental health.

All human beings, irrespective of their abilities and disabilities, have certain rights that are sacrosanct and inalienable. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948, states that all human beings are born free and should enjoy equal rights and dignity.

margarita with a straw disability

To empower persons with disabilities and help them grow beyond perceived and anticipated constraints imposed by society at large, on December 13, 2006, the United Nations announced the  Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. This aimed to safeguard the rights of persons with disabilities and attempted in assisting them to overcome their barriers in leading a normal life like the rest of society.

Apart from this convention, the Disability Act of 1995 and 2016 have also made elaborate attempts towards eradicating differential treatments towards those with disabilities. However, during a pandemic, it becomes extremely difficult for them to survive due to their aggravated state of vulnerability. They are forced to undergo an uncalled for confinement.

Due to the nationwide lockdown, they are struggling to meet even their basic daily requirements such as access to food and other essential items. Their routine medical check-ups have also gone for a toss, rendering them more susceptible to contracting any kind of disease. During such difficult times, governments should make extra efforts to reach out to persons with disabilities by ensuring that information on the Covid-19 measures is accessible to them without any tumult.

For those with an intellectual disability, the information or relief-related instruction should be made interpretable through sign language instructors and easy-to-read formats. The governments can do so by working in collaboration with disability centers who have trained health workers to help people with disabilities. The WHO has suggested governments worldwide to train health professionals to assist those with disabilities suffering from Covid-19.

Being a person with a disability and a person who is infirmed with the virus seems to be a double-edged sword and they need immaculate attention. The UNICEF and WHO have thus jointly issued a guideline where it has been suggested to arrange for separate quarantine centres for PWDs afflicted by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Inclusive development policies and agendas must be a major priority of our government so that people with disabilities has access to basic rights during this tumultuous time. A sturdy assessment policy to gather data about the number of people with disabilities needs to be developed. An administrative body that can implement these policies and serve those in dire need will be effective in helping PWDs transcend physical and mental impediments during this pandemic. Awareness programmes need to be organised by the government in consort with disability organisations to create awareness about physical violence and mental agony that persons with disabilities may be subjected to during these agitating times.

The mental health crisis looms large especially on PWDs this pandemic. Special attention needs to be rendered to sustain the mental health of PWDs who are fraught with consternation. The UN has warned of the global health mental crisis due to the outbreak of the pandemic. “The isolation, the fear, the uncertainty, the economic turmoil-they all-cause or could cause psychological distress,” said Devora Kestel, Director of the mental health department at WHO.

In a report issued by the WHO, it has been suggested to provide emergency mental health assistance through “remote therapies such as tele-counseling for frontline health workers, and working proactively with people known to have depression and anxiety, and with those at high risk of domestic violence and acute impoverishment.”

The mental health crisis looms large especially on PWDs this pandemic. Special attention needs to be rendered to sustain the mental health of PWDs who are fraught with consternation.

For this essay, I interviewed a few persons with disabilities from my locality and neighbouring areas, and what I could conclude is that the government needs to develop ubiquitous reporting mechanisms, emergency numbers, shelters and other forms of assistance that can be accessed by PWDs in this exigency situation. Most of my neighbours with physical and cognitive disabilities complained that they did not know whom to reach out to during such a time when their domestic help isn’t available.

An octogenarian in my neighbourhood, who has speech impairment and suffers from lumbar spinal stenosis, spoke of his utter helplessness when suddenly the online delivery chains ceased to deliver grocery and vegetables following the nationwide lockdown. It was the generosity of his next-door neighbour who would provide him with meals for the coming days and helped him sail through the utter mishap.

Human rights activists and non-governmental organisations have suggested every online delivery portal to deploy delivery agents who would only take care of the needs of those with disabilities during such catastrophic times. For those living in isolation, this situational quandary can lead to devastating results. To prevent such havoc, the governments must engage in dynamic outreach assessments through community and voluntary networks to “raise awareness and provide training about the risk of violence faced by persons with disabilities, in particular women and girls with disabilities, and promote support networks including fostering peer support.”

A Covid-19 Disability Rights Monitor has been launched by International Disability Alliance in collaboration with several partners. Governments and organisations of persons with disabilities were requested to complete a questionnaire to focus on the issues faced by persons with disabilitie amidst the pandemic. This initiative seek to understand “issues faced by persons with disabilities in situations of heightened vulnerability, including those living in institutions and their own homes, children, older persons, those who are homeless and people in rural settings.” It is the duty of all state governments, non-governmental institutions and other disability organisations to responsibly respond to such surveys that can help people with disabilities needs by reflecting their condition.

Providing financial aid for persons with disabilities without any income must also be an important agenda in governmental policies during this menace. Lump-sum payments, tax relief benefits, an extension of soon-to-end disability schemes should be initiated. More attention needs to be paid to PWDs worse affected by the pandemic in shelter homes. Moreover, the government can deploy a special task force of volunteers who’d visit the slums and footpath to look for PWDs to provide them with basic amenities needed to grapple with the virus.

Lindsay Lee, a technical officer from the WHO, said in an interview, “What worries me perhaps more than anything is just the existing barriers that people with disabilities face.” Lee, who uses a wheelchair herself, said out of her personal experience that the lives of people with disabilities are already difficult.

Disability is not an individual anomaly, but an attitudinal one. The lives of people with disabilities are rarely unblemished because of the labyrinth of society’s biased definitions of normalcy and perfection. They are perceived as the ‘Other’, as postulated by Edward Said in his groundbreaking critical work Orientalism and these biases deepen during a pandemic due to discriminatory laws, lack of resources and the existing social smirch. A little benevolence can help people with disabilities live a hassle-free life during such a cataclysm as the Covid-19 pandemic, which has spread like wildfire smoldering lives like parched leaves.

Adding to this, Lee said, “These things, if governments and communities aren’t careful about, can be exacerbated in crises.” According to her, if the entire community joins hands, these risks can be skilfully mitigated. People with disabilities should not feel left out during such an adversity. They must be helped in transcending all obstacles and help them feel that the world will not let them suffer the predicament of an unforeseen calamity. They should be assured that their survival is a priority.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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