What does Covid-19 mean for people with disabilities?

Published on 27 April 2020

Mary Wickenden

Research Fellow

Brigitte Rohwerder

Research Officer

Jackie Shaw

Research Fellow

Stephen Thompson

Research Fellow

The global Covid-19 pandemic has starkly exposed the fragility of our supposedly connected world. Everyone, including those who lead secure and comfortable lives, has been rapidly catapulted into health, social and economic challenges of exceptional scale and severity. However, what is clear amongst the uncertainty is that the impact will be greatest for the poorest and most marginalised people, who already live insecure lives in challenging contexts. It is becoming very apparent that people with disabilities are among the most vulnerable groups caught up in this pandemic, both in richer and poorer contexts.

There is no doubt that the last two decades have seen incredible commitment and progress towards addressing the inequalities and stigma experienced by many people with disabilities (i.e. UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities 2007, the Global Disability Summit 2018). However, the impact of Covid-19 risks stalling or reversing this progress if the correct actions are not taken in response. We don’t know what the world will look like long after the Covid-19 pandemic finishes, but there is no doubt it will be a different place. Will it be better or worse for people with disabilities globally?

People with disabilities, who comprise roughly 15 per cent of the global population (about one in seven people in every community), are amongst the most disadvantaged and left behind even in ordinary times. Across the world, stereotypes, prejudice and stigma contribute to the discrimination experienced by people with disabilities and their families (pdf). As a result of these barriers, they often fare worse than their non-disabled peers in levels of education (pdf) and employment, access to health and social services, community inclusion and political participation. Habitually at the back of the queue for any kind of support and denied voice and agency, they are disproportionately amongst the poorest.

Depending on the impairment that people have (physical, sensory, cognitive or psychosocial difficulty), they may be at increased health risk during a pandemic, though this is not necessarily always the case. A blind or deaf person does not usually have an ‘underlying health condition’ that would put them in a vulnerable category for the coronavirus, but lack of accessible health care and information can increase their risks. Indeed, all disabled people are at risk of the economic and social impacts of COVID-19, which are likely to be much more profound for them and their families than the short-term illness that most people experience.

A digital divide that might exacerbate exclusion

In high-income contexts, most people are digitally connected and facilities such as WIFI have allowed people to quickly transition to using online platforms for many purposes, albeit with a new mode of social connection.

These new ways of living and working are open to some people with disabilities, but for others, the switch to a virtual world during the pandemic may exacerbate an existing digital divide. Elite and affluent disabled people across contexts already use smartphones, laptops, speech-to-text programmes, communication aids and other mainstream or specialised technology so they will largely be able to maintain their connections and privilege in these difficult times.

In contrast, poor and marginalised disabled people (wherever they live) will be unable to take advantage of this new ‘normal’. This will perpetuate and possibly amplify the disproportionate disadvantage of the least powerful people with disabilities. Those for whom technology is out of reach due to capacities or economics will be particularly affected, such as women and people from more excluded impairment groups, who may be catapulted into crises.

What next?

Now confined at home during the pandemic’s most acute phase, many of us are learning to manage restricted social contact and physical movement, adapting to the use of digital platforms to buy food, exercise, socialise and work. But for many disabled people, these kinds of restrictions are their normal and they are already resourceful and flexible in finding ways to do what they need or want to do.

The pandemic has shown that non-disabled people may have things to learn from the disability community, which could help to increase understanding and bring closer people with disabilities and those without. The disability community have been asking for accommodations such as home-based working and flexible hours, and this pandemic has shown how accessibility can be realised when employers prioritise it.

Covid-19 could also be an opportunity to reassess some of the entrenched systems that consistently exclude and constrain the most vulnerable groups. We need to expose the invisible and underexplored impacts of the pandemic on one of the world’s largest and most excluded minority groups. With our Inclusive Futures programme partners, the IDS disability team are testing innovative ways of improving economic empowerment, health, education and inclusion for people with disabilities.

The Covid-19 pandemic adds another layer of both uncertainty and complexity. We can already see how disability exclusion might be exacerbated in this time of crisis, so it is vital that we strengthen our focus on and listen to the most marginalised people to ensure that they are not left behind.

We now need to recognise from our own research the isolation that is a daily experience for many people with disabilities globally. Good practices, such as flexible and remote working should be retained when the immediate public health crisis ends to ensure the necessary reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities.

Bearing in mind those not able to use these virtual platforms, we must constantly reflect on who benefits and who is left behind by any provision and support, and act to address this in collaboration with people with disabilities. Action to tackle disability issues must not only be the concern of disability-focused organisations and programmes. Mainstreaming disability inclusion is vital for a fairer post-pandemic world.

The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IDS.


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