Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are solely of the authors and do not represent the views of YLAC as an organisation.
To tackle the global pandemic, countries across the world have ramped up their vaccination drives to immunise their populace against COVID-19. While it may be prudent to prioritise and vaccinate sections of society disproportionately affected by the virus, it is not a policy practised by many.
India’s vaccination policy requires citizens to register on digital applications and visit vaccination centres — facilities inaccessible to persons with disabilities (PwDs). However, vaccination is our only weapon against COVID-19 and, therefore, tackling these barriers to implement an inclusive vaccination policy should be of utmost importance.
Despite being one of the most vulnerable communities to COVID-19, PwDs have suffered tremendously due to the lack of infrastructure at vaccination centres and healthcare institutions. The absence of ramps and accessible lifts, cramped corridors and narrow walkways are a consistent presence across healthcare facilities in the country.
In fact, the premier healthcare institution of India and currently a vaccination centre — All India Institute of Medical Science (AIIMS) — lacks toilets, ramps, non-slippery floors, wide doors and access to lifts for disabled persons.
Limited access to digital technology has added to the woes of PwDs. Dependent entirely on information from the Internet for over a year now, it’s been an excruciating time for them.
Many government websites, including CoWIN, contain captcha codes that hinder the effectiveness of screen readers used by persons with visual impairment. Similarly, features that enable such assistive technologies are absent from the Aarogya Setu application as well. The screen readers are unable to announce the purpose of controls which makes the application disability-unfriendly.
Moreover, while the Ministry of Health & Family Welfare announces daily COVID-19 updates on its website, it does so without sign language interpretation, thereby denying access to information to persons with hearing disabilities.
Moreover, video-graphic material on COVID-19 announcements is conveyed without captions, audio description tracks or text transcripts which exacerbate the large-scale exclusion of PwDs.
Anita Kumar (name changed), a special educator, shared that both the CoWin and the Aarogya Setu apps were created hastily and lacked features to support PwDs. She emphasised how this reflects the lack of sensitisation and increasing discrimination towards PwDs and talked about its psychological impact on the community.
This was also brought up in an interview with clinical psychologist Dr Yamuna Bharti (name changed), who focused on the psychological aftermath of these difficulties. She believes that PwDs are increasingly experiencing a loss of self-worth and identity, adding to their unwillingness to engage in self-fulfilling and constructive tasks.
She also voiced her concerns on the inadequate training provided to government authorities regarding appropriate etiquette to be followed with PwDs.
Sidhesh Singh (name changed), an advocate from Jharkhand, shared his experience with Indian Railway authorities wherein he was ordered to “show his disability” as evidence in order to receive government-sponsored services.
The fact that these issues are so pervasive in our society indicates a failure to provide appropriate standards of care and protection to a major section of our population.
The vaccination process for PwDs is dotted with hurdles. Small steps by the government and civil society actors can go a long way in setting the stage for an inclusive vaccination policy.
While designing the infrastructure of a vaccination centre, we must keep in mind the needs of those with disabilities. Wheelchair accessible pathways, doors and ramps, adequate signage for the blind, along with an environment that is conducive to neurodivergent individuals, is necessary.
In order to ensure that these basic provisions are in place, a periodic infrastructure audit of healthcare facilities is required to enhance their accessibility.
Further, the staff at the Primary Healthcare Centres (PHCs) need to be trained to care for and undertake treatment of PwDs while following disability appropriate etiquette. This will go a long way in destigmatising disability while offering a safe and secure environment to PwDs in need of medical attention.
Essential apps and websites, including government websites, vaccine slot booking applications and information resources, ought to be made digitally accessible for folks that are visually impaired, deaf and on the autism spectrum.
Adding screen readers, alternative text, and colour schemes that are not triggering for individuals on the autism spectrum will go a long way in making COVID-19 related information accessible to the most vulnerable.
Persons with disabilities who are much more susceptible to contracting the virus cannot be expected to stand in long, congested lines to receive their vaccination. We need more efficient mechanisms such as door-to-door vaccination and a coordinated effort to vaccinate disadvantaged groups in places like elderly homes, community centres, blind schools and group homes.
Many persons with disabilities have apprehensions about the vaccine due to a lack of access to key information. They fear their condition may worsen by taking the lifesaving jab. To mitigate vaccine hesitancy among PwDs, counsellors need to be onboarded for the disabled community to clear any doubts and bust myths regarding vaccines.
Persons with disabilities have been in the shadows of political puppetry for as long as we can remember. Being an amplifier of pre-existing atrocities, the past year has once again reminded us of the need for political representation of vulnerable communities.
“Nothing about us, without us,” states the United Nations Convention on the Right of Persons with Disabilities. It is now time to adhere to it.
Political power in the right hands would strengthen the unheard voices of many. There is a need to shatter stereotypes and emerge as a community that protects all. After all, we have a pandemic to fight.
By Akshat Kakde, Ishita Jain, Reet Lath, Siddharth Gianchandani and Sumedh Gadham