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.
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.”
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.