Pandemic Portraits: Disability & Covid-19 in Bangladesh & Liberia

Published on 31 January 2023

Covid-19 has changed the world as we know it. In particular, the pandemic has significantly affected the lives of people with disabilities, with many facing additional barriers in access to services, increased isolation and increased risks of poor health and social outcomes. To strengthen pandemic responses for all, it is crucial to understand the impact of Covid-19 on people with disability from their own perspective.

Disability in a time of Covid-19

In Bangladesh and Liberia, 14% and 16% of the of the population are thought to live with disabilities respectively. However, there is a lack of data on the needs and experiences of this population group, and people with disabilities are often excluded from being actively involved in research.

To help to address this gap, Shahreen Chowdhury from the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine (LSTM) worked with people with disabilities and caregivers in Bangladesh and Liberia as co-researchers, on ‘Pandemic Portraits’ – a project that aimed to prioritise their views by documenting their own lived experiences of Covid-19.

Using photovoice as a creative participatory methodology, co-researchers took photographs to capture their lived experiences through their lens. The collections of photos cover themes relating to inaccessibility, social connection, barriers to healthcare as well as nature, community, and spaces of healing.

A headshot of a young Liberian woman wearing a medical face mask.
“During the lockdown, the wearing of masks makes it difficult for people who are deaf to get needed information or communicate freely. It is very difficult for a person with hearing impairment to be able to read someone’s lips or know what their expressions are when using masks.”
– Rose Dargbe, younger female, Liberia
In the foreground there is an empty wheelchair facing away from the camera. It sits in the outdoor corridor of a hospital that looks onto a courtyard with trees. In the corridor there is also a person lying on a hospital bed and a medical professional walking down the corridor.
“We rely on wheelchairs. During the initial phase of Covid-19, we used to face negative comments from the general people about using wheelchairs. Some people thought that wheelchairs could increase the risk of spreading the infection. They advised me to stay out of their contact to stop the spread of the infection. When I heard this, I felt very sad and considered myself harmful to mankind. At that time, my coping strategy was to ignore and avoid mixing with people.”
– Halima Akter, 24 years old, female, Dhaka, Bangladesh
A man sitting on the floor, grinding spices and smiling, with his empty wheelchair behind him
“I am grinding the spices during this lockdown which is a new experience for me. Before doing this, I thought that I cannot do it but everyone can do anything if they try. It helps me realise the kind of tough jobs wives and mothers regularly do to prepare food for us.”
– Ashraful Alam, 32 year old male, Dhaka, Bangladesh

Photovoice, through imagery and storytelling, is a powerful tool in prioritising the voices of disabled people, adding to an evidence base to inform inclusive pandemic responses.

The Pandemic Portraits exhibition

The Pandemic Portraits project is linked to the ARISE (Accountability and Responsiveness in Informal Urban Settlements for Equity) project, of which IDS is a partner. On 23 January 2023, IDS hosted a launch event for a ‘Pandemic Portraits’ a photovoice exhibition, which will be hosted by IDS from January – March 2023.

The launch event brought together a range of stakeholders, including researchers and students from across IDS and LSTM, providing opportunities to make connections and find synergies across the diversity of research that participants undertake on the issues of inclusion and disability.

There were short presentations about the work of ARISE (Hayley MacGregor and Laura Dean), the Pandemic Portraits project (Shahreen Chowdhury & co-researchers Boakai A. Nyehn Jr and Heylove R. Mark Sr from the National Union of Organizations for the Disabled Liberia and Salma Akter Urme from BRAC James P Grant School of Public Health) and some of the research on disability undertaken at IDS (Stephen Thompson).

View the Online Gallery

This project was funded by RSTMH and completed in collaboration with REDRESS, Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, the National Union of Organizations for the Disabled Liberia, and BRAC James P Grant School of Public Health.

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