Don’t forget the specially abled

COVID-19 and the vulnerabilities of persons with disabilities in Kashmir
Representational Pic
Representational Pic

On 14thApril, I woke up to the news by a leading daily which cited that one dead bodywas found near Chest Disease Hospital, Dalgate presumably of a "deaf and dumb"beggar who used to be encircled by dogs as he used to feed them. (Note that, Ipersonally don't subscribe to the use of such terminology). It is presumed thathe might have died of CoronaVirus (COVID-19) while his samples were taken fortest posthumously. This report and many such (unreported) cases expose thevulnerabilities of persons with disabilities in the time of a crisis. COVID-19has been declared as a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO). Thismeans that the threat is real and it has been reiterated by the Global ThinkTanks that this pandemic can engulf people directly or indirectly, may have adevastating effect on the world economy and also the marginalized and thevulnerable sections of society shall not remain untouched. With lockdownsseeming the only possible intervention, people who are living in poorconditions, the migrants, refugees, and the other vulnerable sections ofsociety like the persons with disabilities may face additional liabilities. Therecent report by the WHO on the "Disability Considerations during the COVID-19Outbreak" mentions that the persons with disabilities are likely to be morevulnerable and are at a greater risk of contracting the virus because they canface:

1."Barriersto implementing basic hygiene measures, such as hand washing (e.g. hand basins,sinks or water pumps may be physically inaccessible, or a person may havephysical difficulty rubbing their hands together thoroughly).

2.Difficultyin enacting social distancing because of additional support needs or becausethey are institutionalized.

3. The needto touch things to obtain information from the environment or for physicalsupport

4. Barriersto accessing public health information".

Additionallythis may also be due to "COVID-19 exacerbating existing health conditions,particularly those related to respiratory function, immune system function,heart disease or diabetes".

Peopleliving with disabilities have different and special needs during the time ofdisasters, crisis or an epidemic as they are more vulnerable. Now, why are theymore vulnerable at this point when all of us may think that we are equallyexposed and stand an equal chance of being infected?  It is because at the onset, they can facechallenges in accessing reliable information about this virus. People withhearing impairment and visual impairment are more likely to have informationscarce about the risk and prevention of this virus. In these times, informationis rendered inaccessible to them, as providing information on Braille or SignLanguage would be the last thing that would come to our minds. The recentinterview details of GVS Murthy who is the Director of Indian Institute ofPublic Health Dept, Hyderabad draws my attention to a very important aspect. Henotes that "For the hearing impaired, especially those who are not literate,they cannot hear the message or read it. Since many depend on lip-reading, theyare compromised when person giving a message is wearing a mask". Also, thepersons with visual impairment are dependent upon "touch"; they usually touchsurfaces and things in order to cater to their needs. This can make them moresusceptible and may increase their risk of getting infected. If we discuss theseverely disabled who require assistance for their Activities of Daily Living(ADL'S), then social distancing would pragmatically be not an option for them.There are also a considerable number of persons with physical impairment whoneed assistive devices or rehabilitative services on a day to day basis.

There isalso another important aspect to this discussion which relates to theinaccessible environment that Kashmir has. The inaccessible roads, ambulances,hospitals, toilets, banks that we have all around can exacerbate the problemsfor them particularly for those who have a physical impairment. One practicalexample here can be the instance where there is a need to quarantine a personwith physical disability. Given the inaccessible infrastructure including the hospitalsthat we have, it would definitely be a difficult task for the person and thefamily members to ensure his/her safety. Similarly a person with hearing orvisual impairment would face same problem, particularly due to the lack of signlanguage in the former case. It also becomes important to understand the rangeof other disabilities and their vulnerabilities like "Blood disorders" whichincludes Thalassemia, Sickle Cell Disease, and Hemophilia. Persons sufferingfrom such conditions can face extreme difficulties in managing their visits tohospitals and getting required assistance.

Thegovernment has been trying to mainstream the vulnerable population by providingcash assistance which obviously is insufficient. Under National SocialAssistance Programme the Centre has decided to provide three months advancepension to the senior citizens, widows and person with disabilities. It hasalso "announced an ex-gratia of Rs 1000 over two months in two installments"for the vulnerable including the persons with disabilities. Though, theadministration has been working by enforcing the lockdown or ensuring the homedelivery of essentials or by dedicating help lines. But the measures have to bestepped up when it comes to the vulnerable sections of the society,particularly the persons with disabilities. They have already been living aninvisible life, and their situation at the time of this crisis would definitelydemand a greater intervention.

The Author is pursuing her doctoral research in the area of Disability and Reproductive Health from the Department of Social Work, University of Kashmir.

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