The rights and lives of people with disabilities in the era of COVID-19

By Maria Tsakiri and Katerina Mavrou, European University Cyprus, and Simoni Symeonidou, University of Cyprus

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Among all other difficulties, periods of crisis are often periods during which pre-existing inequalities and stigma can exacerbate. People with disabilities have less opportunities in accessing health care services, even though they belong in vulnerable groups with increased health care needs. In addition, opportunities in accessing assistive technology products and services, that are necessary for exercising fundamental human rights with dignity in everyday life, information, communication, safety, rehabilitation and education, are eliminated. 

Existing barriers of already non-accessible environments and services are increasing. Every official and non-official agency has the obligation to offer information and services in accessible format and content, in terms of language (e.g. use of simple language, different languages options and symbolisation), in terms of format and mode for presenting information (e.g. easy-to-read, alternatives to visual and auditory information, colour, size and contrast options), and in terms of communication strategies (e.g. sign language, lipreading through transparent masks, accessible printed and digital communication). 

Access also means to provide the opportunity to persons with disabilities to be represented in all procedures and action planning for responding to the crisis; to communicate (through personal communication options, such as alternative communication), with both the support staff and professionals, as well as their social environment; to share experiences and express concerns and needs, in order to take necessary actions to save themselves and their families from the outbreak.  Instead, the decisions of governmental agencies around the world reflect disableism, ageism, medical racism, and reinforce the imposition of idealised normalcy.

Issues of priority

Observing national and international procedures for managing this global crisis, issues of priority arise. The lack of guidelines that facilitate priority in some bodies lies in biopolitical practices . When policies and guidelines do not prioritise and highlight the importance of access to information, education, services and, above all to the health care services for people with disabilities, then practices of necropolitics are applied. State agencies around the world have the power to decide which lives are expendable and which are valuable according to the demands of neoliberal policies.

The emerging biopolitical practices separate people to those who are worthy to live and those whose lives are not valued, something that has caused great concern in the communities of people with disabilities . The European Commissioner for Human Rights calls on all Member States to manage the pandemic by applying Article 11 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities that states:

States Parties shall take, in accordance with their obligations under international law, including international humanitarian law and international human rights law, all necessary measures to ensure the protection and safety of persons with disabilities in situations of risk, including situations of armed conflict, humanitarian emergencies and the occurrence of natural disasters.

The absence of a human rights approach to disability, even prior to the COVID-19 outbreak has immense consequences, leading to millions of unfulfilled lives. Activists with disabilities and organisations of people with disabilities have expressed their concerns as the current political decisions tend to establish practices of biopolitics. Health care rationing and the constructed criterion of “quality of life” should not lead to the application of guidelines that reflect and promote principles of eugenics.  If the strategies for tackling the pandemic crisis overlook and violate human rights, then discrimination widens and puts the lives of people with disabilities at risk. It is important that representatives of people with disabilities participate actively in the decision-making and development of regulations for dealing with the current pandemic. 

Violation of principles

In the area of education, dominant exclusionary policies and practices towards learners with disabilities ignored the principles of non-discrimination and equality of opportunities that are fundamental in the United Nations (UN) Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. During the COVID-19 outbreak, violation of these principles might affect the lives of learners with disabilities and their families in many ways. In particular, the continuous efforts of many countries to make a shift from proximate learning to distance learning does not always consider learners with disabilities. As a result, some learners with disabilities receive distance learning and support that is consistent with the policy framework (because their prior support network was strong or because they do not need reasonable accommodations), while others are awaiting for decisions.

To avoid regression and learning loss, everyday practice needs to be a top priority for some learners (e.g., learners whose education prioritises the development of alternative communication skills or social skills). Handling difficulties associated with technological equipment and use of distance learning platforms that may not be accessible is important for some learners. Moving from proximate learning to distance learning and at the same time maintaining the individualised element of learning is also essential for learners with disabilities. Therefore, policies on distance learning need to consider non-discrimination and equality of opportunities for all, while at the same time ensure the individualised nature of support. 

The way the governments and societies will respond to the COVID-19 outbreak will define the lives and experiences of people with disabilities in many ways.

For many decades, people with disabilities have been sharing their personal experiences of marginalisation and exclusion. The way the governments and societies will respond to the COVID-19 outbreak will define the lives and experiences of people with disabilities in many ways. What will our feelings be when we become aware of these stories? Not only the governments of the different countries, but all individuals that are involved in handling policy making and practice during the pandemic are responsible of treating all people as equal. The implementation of human rights at all levels of crisis management is imperative, as all lives worth living and all lives matter. 

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