Covid-19 and people with disabilities – Guest Column by Anusha Subramanian
Anusha Subramanian is an independent journalist and mountaineer. She has been working towards building awareness of persons with disability in the outdoors. As India stares at another two weeks of coronavirus/COVID-19 lockdown, she underlines the challenges faced by disabled people in this well-researched and thoughtful piece.
Recently, Sanket Bhirud, 26, ordered some groceries online. Part of the product list was a milk carton. That evening he made himself a cup of tea but, the tea did not taste good. He made a video call to a friend and asked her to check the carton. As it turned out, it was cream. An otherwise good-humoured Sanket felt totally irritated and helpless. He had perhaps never felt his visual impairment so acutely. Sanket, who is blind from birth, works and lives alone in Chennai.
Comedian Sweta Mantri, who uses crutches, has a different problem altogether. Every year for three months, she is stuck indoors because of the monsoons. This year her lockdown is for much longer. During April and May, she looks forward to moving around independently but now she is cooped indoors. She is trying to grapple with this with a touch of her trademark humour.
Challenges of following COVID-19 safety measures for disabled people
The above two are just some examples of how people with disabilities are struggling to cope with the countrywide lockdown.
The COVID-19 situation across the world has taken people by storm. Amid this pandemic, there is one community that continues to struggle and that is the large disabled population. Social distancing and self-quarantine, the universally prescribed guidelines, are complicated for disabled people and their caregivers.
As per the Census 2011 data every tenth household in India has a disabled member. While there is much conversation around COVID-19 in the media, there is little mention of the impact this lockdown is having in the lives of the disabled population. It is important to realise that persons with both physical and mental disabilities need to be made a part of these conversations and feel supported in these times of need.
Clinical psychologist Tanya Ginwala, who is also the founder of a support group called Insight says, “For each disability the challenges are different. Physical social distancing after a point also takes a toll on their mind makeup. Prolonged isolation can lead to loneliness”. Insight is trying to address this through informal social interactions and virtual meets.
Online activities to the rescue
“Many parents of children with disability are also resorting to online activity resource centres”, adds Tanya. She says that this is a good time for parents to set a routine for their children to reduce their anxiety.
Anxiety and change in routine are a big challenge for disabled people, who are used to a routine. With the sudden lockdown, their lives are topsy-turvy leading to great anxiety.
Rajashree Anand, parent of an adult autistic girl supports social distancing and lockdown but says this has an adverse impact as well. “People with autism are very particular about a structure being followed, both for themselves and for people around them. They get disturbed when this routine changes suddenly. This can be stressful for the child and parent and may cause meltdowns. My daughter has experienced bouts of crying/whining, mood-swings, sleeplessness, crankiness, etc. Getting her to do something else at home stresses her out as it is not a part of her routine”.
Social distancing is hard for people dependent on caregivers coming home. This presents an impossible choice between protecting their own lives versus needing people to help them live.
Virali Modi, a wheelchair-bound motivational speaker living alone in Mumbai, has taken special permission to let her house help come every day and help her out. She is among the lucky few. Her situation led her to launch a social media campaign called #DisabilityonLockdown to get the government to issue ID cards to disabled people and their caregivers.
The guidelines set by the government already have this in place but they work differently for different people.
“For a blind, touch and feel is everything, but in these trying times we cannot do that”, points out Sanket. “Certain amount of physical proximity such as a handshake, or a pat in the shoulder when you meet someone is something that I feel connected and can identify with.” He does videos calls every few hours with family and friends to stay connected and positive.
People I spoke to for this article also highlighted the mental trauma they are experiencing in this unusual times. Many of them say that it is even more important now for them to be mentally strong, both for themselves and their families.
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