Jessie Meaney Davis

How Getting Organized has helped Mitigate the Impact of COVID-19 on People with Disabilities

Ahead of tomorrow’s International Day of People With Disabilities, Jessie Meaney-Davis summarizes new research on the impact of the pandemic.

People with disabilities have been disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, and not only because of the risks associated with underlying health conditions. The Disability Inclusion Helpdesk’s new report explains how the exclusion of Organisations of People with Disabilities (OPDs) from decision-making resulted in severe impacts for people with disabilities, and how OPDs in Bangladesh, Nigeria and Zimbabwe successfully advocated for and provided vital assistance to people with disabilities, despite major obstacles. This is part of a wider set of research findings on the impact of COVID-19 on people with disabilities throughout Africa and Asia, generated by the Inclusive Futures consortium.

During the pandemic, people with disabilities and OPDs were largely excluded from disaster planning and response mechanisms. Instead of being invited to work with governments and humanitarian actors in disaster and response planning, they found themselves trying to mitigate the damage caused by policy decisions that had not adequately considered and included people with disabilities. This had the following impacts:

  • Access to information: Government information about the pandemic was not accessible to people with disabilities during the early months of the pandemic. OPDs played a key role in advocating for, producing, and disseminating accessible information. One OPD in Zimbabwe even sued the government for failing to provide information about the pandemic in accessible formats. Governments in all three countries did eventually rectify this issue, but the situation could have been prevented if OPDs had been proactively included in disaster planning and planning of public information campaigns before the pandemic.
  • Social Protection: Many people with disabilities could not access government food and financial assistance or social protection. For example, in Zimbabwe, there was no national register of people with disabilities, which meant many people with disabilities did not receive assistance, and in Bangladesh, many people with disabilities did not have national identity cards, which precluded access to food and cash assistance. OPDs played a key role advocating for inclusion in social protection schemes, providing assistance themselves with limited resources, and/or working with governments to provide information from needs assessments and disability data to improve delivery.
  • Gender-based violence (GBV): OPDs observed an increase in GBV against women and girls with disabilities during lockdowns and as economic situations deteriorated. Barriers to accessing support such as physically inaccessible and/or discriminatory GBV services, travel distances, inaccessible transport, unresponsive or insensitive police and legal services, and the need to be accompanied by assistants or caregivers (who in some instances may be perpetrators), were exacerbated by restrictions on movement and OPDs’ limited funding during the pandemic. Some organisations of women with disabilities relied on community members to voluntarily monitor and follow up on cases of GBV in rural areas, while others collaborated with women’s rights organisations to ensure services were disability-inclusive. An OPD in Bangladesh highlighted the unique challenge of trying to assist women with disabilities who have experienced financial abuse during the pandemic, citing one instance of a woman with a disability dying by suicide after her savings and disability allowance were stolen by her family members.
  • Mental health services: The pandemic highlighted the need for improved mental health responses, both for people without disabilities and people with pre-existing mental health conditions and psychosocial disabilities. Research during the pandemic found that 82% of survey respondents with disabilities said they were more anxious, nervous, or worried than before the pandemic, and almost half sought support for anxiety and depression. OPDs were a key source of information, peer support, and mental health support for people with disabilities and their families, especially those who could not access public information and services. For example, in Nigeria, She Writes Woman expanded their mental health and psychosocial services due to the dramatic increase in calls for help. Their experience of assisting people experiencing mental health crises helped them to highlight the systemic gaps in mental health care and the need for human rights-based mental health legislation in Nigeria.
  • Education: Many OPDs had to stop their work on disability-inclusive education because schools were closed. In some cases, funds for education activities were re-allocated to pandemic response activities due to pressure from funders. OPDs continued to disseminate messages about the inclusion of children with disabilities in education and social life over radio and social media, and they communicated directly with children with disabilities and their families. But they raised concerns about children with disabilities being excluded from remote education during lockdowns, and potentially being further excluded from education in the longer term.
  • Advocacy: OPDs advocated for more disability-inclusive responses from governments. Their advocacy with governments prior to the pandemic was largely focused on improving legislation and policies. In the first six to nine months of the pandemic, many OPDs temporarily shifted their advocacy to focus on immediate structural issues that the pandemic brought to the fore, for example the lack of accessible official communications and gaps in registration of people with disabilities, which left them at significant risk. Governments commonly only adapted their pandemic responses to be disability-inclusive after successful advocacy by OPDs. For example, many governments updated their communications to be accessible to people with disabilities under great pressure from OPDs.
Sizan, who has multiple disabilities, sits with his mother Shahanaj as she takes the blood pressure of patient Sufia. Shahanaj, who lost her income during the pandemic, was able to access food packages, buy basic medical supplies and use her medical training to make money, as a result of support from a local organisation for people with disabilities and Inclusive Futures. © ADD International, Bangladesh, Rajshahi – 1 December 2020

On top of these impacts, donors and INGOs commonly made funding decisions that put many OPDs under severe financial strain. Many OPD staff worked for months without pay and some OPDs shut down completely for extended periods. Some INGOs also stepped in to undertake activities that OPDs could have led if they had been better resourced and supported.

OPDs have stressed the importance of continuing to strengthen disability movements and transform the ways in which OPDs, governments and other civil society actors engage with each other, to prevent the recurrence of exclusion and its negative consequences in future crises.

Jessie Meaney Davies was employed by Social Development Direct (SDDirect) at the time of writing this article. SDDirect run the Disability Inclusion Helpdesk to share the research and learning from Inclusive Futures. The Helpdesk provides research and advice to the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) and other UK Government staff on disability inclusion in policy and programming.

P.S. From Duncan: I’ll be chairing a discussion on ‘disability, development, rights and inclusion’ this Friday, with Terhas Clark and Mosharraf Hossain, from 4-6pm UK time

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