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Has India’s Vaccination Drive Been Disabled-Friendly?

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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.

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 Disability-Unfriendly Health Infrastructure

World Spinal Injury Day
Representative Image. (Photo by Raj K Raj/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

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.

cowin app
Representative Image.

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.

What Needs To Be Done

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.

Representative Image. (Source: flickr)

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

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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.

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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.

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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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