During the lockdown, a father, left with no choice but to steal a bicycle, transported his disabled son from rural Rajasthan to Uttar Pradesh. A professor and wheelchair user in West Bengal, with no means of transport, has no access to medical care during this period, even in an emergency. In the wake of the pandemic and the lockdown, the already arduous quest for health, safety, and security for many has been exacerbated by a lack of accessibility.
Impact of the crisis
These stories should impel us all to act on accessibility. The pandemic reveals how exacerbated inequities have become, particularly in low- and middle-income countries. In India, a study, “Locked Down and Left Behind,” documents the plight of persons with disabilities during this crisis. Of the 1,067 respondents, 73% are facing severe challenges, namely with financial stability, access to essential items, adequate accommodation, and availability of healthcare. Second, thousands of families lack access to critical care takers and domestic help, who play crucial roles in caring for a child or family member with a disability. Finally, there are significant impacts on the well-being of persons with disabilities. In particular, social isolation and limited access to accessible, adequate sanitation or isolation facilities threaten the health and safety of this already vulnerable population.
As individuals who either work with children and young adults with disabilities or are caregivers/persons with disabilities ourselves, we have seen the impact first-hand. We have seen parents and families taking on herculean tasks to deliver interventions and therapies for their children, with telephone support from therapists or other support workers. We have seen many caregivers who are coping exceptionally well and are able to support their children or family member; for others, juggling work from home, the needs of this person, alongside other responsibilities are challenging. We have seen how parents, particularly fathers, and organisations are joining forces with caregivers to collaborate on common challenges to develop innovative solutions for persons with disabilities.
However, underlying these efforts to address the impact of the pandemic at a community level is the fundamental challenge of accessibility. Persons with disabilities already struggle for equitable access to education, healthcare, transportation, and economic opportunities. The pandemic has further decreased access to these basic services and rights.
The pandemic simultaneously presents an unprecedented challenge and an opportunity to change the course of accessibility in low- and middle-income countries in the post-pandemic world. As the world continues to re-imagine a new ‘normal’ for its physical and social spaces, there is a window of opportunity to improve accessibility. In low- and middle-income countries that have battled pressing challenges (mass migration, concurrent infections like TB, limited health infrastructure, etc.), COVID-19 recovery plans include investments in urban planning, health facilities, and social spaces. If accessibility is considered, these efforts can catalyse the vision of an inclusive world.
Filling the gaps
To address this growing fissure between the accessible and non-accessible world, the international community will have to close some of the gaps and blunt some of the edges by building accessibility across all sectors. Such efforts must engage people to promote education and awareness on including persons with disabilities; implementing accessibility laws and regulations; improving physical accessibility and universal design; reducing stigma; and developing the tools for individuals and communities to engage meaningfully with persons with disabilities. Ultimately, one of the key ways to achieve this is to begin including and involving persons with disabilities in decision and policymaking, for COVID-19 recovery and beyond, which can ensure representation on the matters that govern their lives.
There is rarely an opportunity where policymakers have an ability to change the physical and social world drastically. Using this moment to implement universal accessibility should be central to the vision of the post-COVID era. Accessibility is a vital human right, and an accessible post-COVID world is one that will deliver justice to the minority population, without whom the path towards Sustainable Development Goals realisation and universal health coverage will remain a distant goal.
Shubha Nagesh works with The Latika Roy Foundation, Dehradun; Sara Rotenberg is a graduate of Georgetown University and Rhodes Scholar-elect based in Toronto. Views are personal