Coronavirus-news March 18, 2020
Coronavirus affects disabled community seriously, so why is there no accessible info about this?
Three deaths and over 110 infected with coronavirus. The numbers are rising in India and there are advisories on how people can protect themselves. However, little of this is accessible to the disabled community, which is shocking given that people with disabilities are at additional risk. That’s the focus on #StoryOfTheWeek.
For over a week now, disability rights advocate Nipun Malhotra has confined himself indoors. As a wheelchair user, Nipun is anxious about going out. Most places are not disabled-friendly and he is forced to depend on a caretaker. Social isolation, a strongly recommended protective measure, he says is meaningless.
“Following many of these measures is a genuine problem for a person with disability”, says Nipun, who is working out of his home in Gurgaon. “This whole business of social isolation and distancing is not possible for someone with a physical disability like me who is so dependent on caretakers. For that matter, even people with intellectual disabilities need someone to attend to them all the time.”
Advisories on coronavirus in inaccessible formats
This is just one instance of the larger sense of bewilderment and confusion being felt by the disabled community in India. There are plenty of how to’s and what not’s out there, most of it inaccessible. Take the website of the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW), which has the latest updated information. It is yet not W3CAG compliant, rendering it inaccessible to visually impaired people. Nor is the information available in sign language. Important live press briefings by the MoHFW are without sign language interpreters. Deaf people cannot access the 24×7 helpline either. “Barring Kerala, no other government has come up with a sign language video”, points out Nipun.
This is both insensitive and dangerous, says disability rights activist and medical doctor Dr Satendra Singh. Having a disability by itself may not put someone at higher risk from coronavirus, but many disabled people have specific disabilities or chronic conditions that make the illness more dangerous.
Cardiovascular diseases such as high blood pressure and heart disease are more prevalent in mobility impaired and those with hearing loss. Social distancing poses serious challenges to disabled people in rural and poor settings. 70% of the disabled population in India lives in rural areas. Poverty doubly marginalises these and it’s very difficult for them to isolate themselves. Many rural areas are still grappling with water shortage, which affects hand hygiene. Those people with disabilities who are in quarantine might face loneliness and anxiety from social isolation which takes a toll on their immune system, further compromising it and increasing risk of catching COVID-19. – Dr Satendra Singh, Disability rights activist
Lack of accessible content creates anxiety
Mumbai-based systems engineer Jasmina Khanna believes advisories need to be more targeted and specific for people with disabilities. “The information is not inclusive to begin with and whatever is being put out is generic. Many disabled people have immunity levels that are low. Even their caregivers have to be careful while looking after them. They are in daily contact and hence vulnerable”.
Law student Maitrya Shah, who is visually impaired, is struggling for accessible content. “There is certainly lack of accessible information sources and absence of a larger sensitivity. For instance, my university took a call yesterday to shut down and asked people to vacate immediately. It’s difficult for a disabled person like me to do that so soon”.
Experts highlight immediate steps
Dr Singh outlines some immediate steps the government can take to address these gaps.
“Creating a dedicated hotline for people with a disability with text services (for deaf people) and release of all advisories from the MoHFW in accessible formats is the urgent need of the hour”. Given that the MOHFW is working at the front, he recommends that the Department of Empowerment for Persons with Disabilities should develop this. “Also, this is the time to reactivate the forgotten Accessible India Campaign to ensure all clinics providing testing and services related to COVID-19 are completely accessible”.
There are concerns that with cases rising, the government will struggle to meet the care needs of people with disabilities. “Disabled People Organisations working for individual disabilities needs to step up their efforts as it’s a pandemic”, warns Dr Singh. This involves close collaboration between the government and the disability sector. “Together only we can win this war”.