One Step Forward, Two Steps Back - PwDs during and beyond the Covid-19 crisis

Disability itself has never been a barrier, the lack of support is. The first step towards integrating PWDs is to move from a charity-based to a rights-based approach that sees differently-abled persons as equal citizens.

A majority of India’s 26.8 million persons with disabilities (PwDs) have faced hardships during the Covid-19 crisis. A WHO health advisory warns how PwDs may be at greater risk of contracting the infection:

  • Basic sanitation measures such as regular hand-washing may be inaccessible to them

  • Inability to maintain social distancing due to the need for special support

  • The need to touch objects or persons to interact with them, or even to interact with their physical surroundings

  • Increased risk of severe cases of COVID-19 due to underlying health conditions

In late March 2020, the Central Government released a set of guidelines for the safety and protection of PwDs. However, there were short comings in implementation and amidst calls for physical distancing and adjustments to the new normal, PwDs were left out. To ensure that they have access to essential information, NGOs and social enterprises have been working round the clock to design accessible material and provide alternate solutions.

Satosh Rungta, President National Federation of the Blind, highlights, “The pandemic has come at a time when the process of inclusion of PwDs was just beginning. Fear created by the need of social distancing has challenged this work and put it in reverse gear’. 

Disrupted Routines 

Sonalee,  Founder of Urmi Foundation shares, “For children with Intellectual Disabilities, lack of essential nutrition, beyond the food basics supplied by BMC, has been fatal. There have been 22 reported deaths of children in the last 6 months in the communities we work with.” There are continued reports of debilitating health and wellbeing of children with IDs in low-income communities -  the last priority of households with meagre resources. It feels like many steps backwards, however stopping is not an option. Team Urmi finds solace in the success of their new auditory learning curriculum and ability of setting-up a timetable essential for the mental wellbeing of the children. This has also been a cornerstone of their engagement with the family and one that has helped children with IDs navigate this new world of family members at home full-time and more noise.

Ashaita Mahajan, Co-Founder, Yash Charitable Trust, an NGO that provides adults with developmental and intellectual disabilities skill training and employment opportunities through their Cafe Arpan in Juhu, Mumbai said “Any break from routine, any change in pattern and behaviour could cause regression in skill development. That’s why we started recreational therapy activities online. Along with music and dance, we incorporated the training that we gave onsite, so now there is a cooking class every single day along with literacy and math classes - a holistic way of keeping them engaged.”

Aman and his team at TEACH – a non-profit organisation (NPO) that works with hearing and visually impaired students and caters to their educational and employment needs –are doing their best to ensure that students’ learning is not disturbed. With school and college curriculum moving online, they ensured students had internet access by paying for data top-ups and classes were conducted in sign language. Moreover, TEACH also began hosting sign language workshops for family members to improve communication at home.

The Future of work for PWDs

While education for PwDs is adapting to the changes borne out of the pandemic, young adults who have physical or intellectual disabilities struggle to find jobs and earn a decent living. 

Meera Shenoy, CEO of Youth4Jobs, highlights that finding employment opportunities for PwDs has been challenging as the market has completely changed.  "The largest employment avenues; retail, hospitality, have come to a standstill. Earlier 60% of the placements were in the organized sector which has drastically fallen to 35%. " added Meera.

Compounding this is the isolation experienced in workplaces. Team members view PwDs as a walking health threat as some use ‘touch’  as their primary mode for mobility. “There have been reports of them being relegated to isolated work areas” said Mr. Santosh Rungta.

Given their limited mobility, local employment would prove to be a great opportunity. However, the MSME segment lacks awareness and hiring practices for PwDs. Creating a centralised database will help identify jobs and facilitate local job matchmaking by organizations and individuals working on employment opportunities of PwDs.

Towards an Inclusive Future

Perhaps unwittingly, the coronavirus has shown the general public—albeit briefly—the effects of being stigmatised like the lives of PWDs and their families. “What we have been experiencing – no movie and other things, the mother of a child with autism has always had to live like this,” observes Prachi, Founder of Nayi Disha, who draws a parallel between how those infected by COVID-19 were initially treated as outcasts and the exclusion faced by PWDs daily. 

Disability itself has never been a barrier, the lack of support is. The first step towards integrating PWDs is to move from a charity-based to a rights-based approach that sees differently-abled persons as equal citizens. The Rights to Persons With Disabilities Act, 2016, makes a step in this direction. However, it will take each of us to consciously create a supportive and accepting society for PwDs.

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