At a time when the entire world is grappling with COVID-19 pandemic and the consequent lockdown, persons with disabilities (PwDs) have an altogether different story to narrate. Despite accounting for around 2.2% of India’s population, PwDs have been the most neglected and hence, one of the most severely affected by the pandemic. PwDs are as prone to the virus as the rest of the population, if not more. However, the difficulties experienced by them are further aggravated due to a variety of underlying factors.
Most often, PwDs are highly dependent on others for activities of daily living. In a situation like this, the inability to maintain social distancing only contributes to increasing their vulnerability. The fear of contracting COVID-19 virus has also led to an increase in the unwillingness of the care-givers to extend their services. With restrictions on services, pairing relevant care-givers with PwDs is another challenge that has become evident.
The pre-existence of physical and mental health complications also increases the probability of PwDs to contract the virus. For instance, particularly in the times of COVID-19, the need of a visually impaired person to touch things in order to obtain information from the surroundings is an unsafe practice. Additionally, the sudden imposition of lockdown has not just limited their exposure to the outside world but has essentially hindered their access to a variety of healthcare services and medical treatments that they rely on for everyday functioning, thus aggravating the disability in many cases.
In the context of employment opportunities, the prejudice and stigma against PwDs have exposed them to a greater risk of getting unemployed. In such times of unrest and crisis, sudden unemployment has only translated to PwDs being left to fend for themselves leading to their economic marginalization. It is also worth highlighting how PwDs have been vouching for and consequently being denied work-from-home opportunities since long. However, the pandemic has very successfully proven how the entire world can operate on work-from-home practices and this has essentially been an eye-opener for workplaces to become more inclusive and accommodating of the needs of the disabled.
The pandemic has brought the entire world to operate on technology. Be it academics or corporates, to most people, the pandemic has at least brought a satisfaction that when the entire world crashes down, technology might still keep us moving. However, digital accessibility has hardly been thought about. With restrictions on physical mobility and all minor/major activities being done online, most websites and mobile applications have failed to incorporate the needs of PwDs as they lack a disabled friendly interface. Additionally, most precautionary measures and advisories by the government have also been restricted to audio/written format. The failure to incorporate features like braille, sign language, closed captioning etc. speaks volumes about the extent of exclusion that PwDs are subjected to. This has also raised the question about the validity of making a mobile application like AarogyaSetu mandatory, despite it being digitally inaccessible for PwDs.
PwDs have always been rendered invisible in our society and this is essentially why India experienced an absence of a disability-inclusive response to the public health crisis. The need of the hour is to collaborate with relevant stakeholders and incorporate the needs of the target population before formulating any guidelines and policies. Inclusion begins with making the decision-making process participatory and hence, considering it as an after-thought would only result in a collapse of the entire system.
An exclusive article by DAND
Written by Ritica Maheshwari