Is ‘survival of the fittest’ going to be the mantra for coronavirus clamp down? – My Take by Anchal Bhatheja
In My Take, Anchal Bhatheja, a second year law student at the National Law School of India University in Bengaluru talks about how policies to contain coronavirus are not sufficient to meet the needs of persons with disabilities. Anchal is also the founder of the NLS Diversible Alliance which seeks to promote the interests of people of disabilities on campus.
Thanks to the Supreme Court of India, the constitutional philosophy concerning “life” has been very expansive. Out of the plethora of rights that have been read into Article 21, the Right to Health stands out. Substantive equality is guaranteed to persons with disabilities under Article 14 and RPWD Act 2016. However, despite being equally deserving, persons with disabilities are being left behind on many counts.
Glaring information gaps for disabled people
To start off, the most important tool in the hands of citizens to curb the coronavirus pandemic is information. However, the information asymmetry regarding precautions, symptoms and response is glaring. This asymmetry can take a worse shape when it intersects with disability. Government websites are not accessible, despite the formulation of a National Policy for Electronic Accessibility in 2009. This shows the guidelines were never taken seriously. So, the information about the pandemic is not reaching the visually impaired community. The deaf are also struggling because public health messages are not being made available in sign language.
Even if the information reaches them, implementing the precautions is difficult. Social distancing is not possible for people with severe physical limitations. This is because such people are dependent on their care givers. So much so that hand-washing, which is the most vital part of maintaining personal hygiene at the time of this outbreak, is not possible for the people with severe disabilities without help.
If at all a PwD tests positive, we lack a reasonably disabled-friendly health infrastructure, let alone a fully accessible one. Take the example of a metropolitan city like Mumbai. Here 80% of public buildings lack ramps. Even public hospitals lack accessible toilets. The situation in smaller cities is bound to be bleaker. Inside hospitals, health equipment like weighing machines are not designed to cater to the needs of people with disabilities. Healthcare apps connecting health providers to patients are not accessible. Emergency services cannot cater to the needs of the disabled community.
Then there are concerns about whether state officials, doctors, health providers etc. are sensitised to the requirements of disabled people. Doctors are not aware about the different and specific needs of a person with disability. They are not trained to handle such cases.
Disabled people more vulnerable to coronavirus
What is also worrisome is that PwDs are more vulnerable because certain conditions like muscular dystrophy and post-polio syndrome, can become life threatening due to the contraction of coronavirus. This happens because these people already have a weak Respiratory system or a weak immune system. It is also to be noted that on diagnosis, quarantine becomes necessary and the impact of this quarantine on the condition of a person with mental health issues like schizophrenia can be immense. Apart from Kerala, the unavailability of counselling services in the rest of the country points to the fact that these problems are not being discussed or contemplated.
The state has not considered the question of the disabled community in terms of information dissemination, diagnosis or reasonable accommodation during the treatment. The only one time a person with disability has been visible in the mainstream since the outbreak, was when the Tamil Nadu government released an awareness video featuring a man without hands appealing to the public to wash hands to contain the spread of the pandemic.
This shows that even in these troubled times, people with disabilities are not being seen as persons before anything else. It is high time that the government adopted an inclusive rights-based approach in dealing with the pandemic
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