The pandemic has exacerbated the challenges faced by persons with disabilities
The Covid-19 pandemic has caused serious distress for many people worldwide. Persons with disabilities—an estimated 6.5 percent to 16.2 percent of the population, one of the most marginalised groups in Bangladesh—are no exception. But they remained virtually invisible in the public discourse and policy decisions around supporting vulnerable people during the pandemic.
Covid-19 proved to be highly stressful for persons with disabilities and their caregivers, predominantly women, who had to struggle to fulfil the unique needs of their children with disabilities, without much support from anyone else in or outside the family during the pandemic. This was the case of 16-year-old Korimun, who cannot speak clearly and uses home-grown signs. She was fearful of her mother going outside or leaving her alone during the pandemic. Eventually, her mother lost her job as a part-time domestic worker and had to migrate to her village with Korimun.
"I am scared, people die… boys and girls, everyone dies of Corona"—this is how Julekha (22), a young woman with communication and psycho-social difficulties, expressed her understanding of Covid-19 in a study conducted by the BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD) in partnership with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) in 2021.
The pandemic has affected people with different types and degrees of disabilities differently.In the same study, 16-year-old Eemon, who has a visual disability, said, "We are very ill-fated that our education has come to a halt for the past two years." Eemon had to join a courier service as a worker to support his family, as other members faced income loss as a result of the pandemic. It is highly unlikely that he will go back to his much-loved school, even though schools have reopened.
These stories demonstrate that that the pandemic's impact on persons with disabilities was as great as that of the general population, but the former group is likely to suffer more because of their disabilities. The pandemic has been particularly difficult for children with various types of neuro-developmental disabilities, some of whom were earlier enrolled in schools. School activities were the only scope for socialisation and stimulation for many, which worked as their much-needed psycho-social therapy. The school offered activities as simple as singing, mingling, dancing, taking part in sports and art classes, which help them learn self-dependence and care in their own ways, and kept them fit physically and psychologically. For at least 18 months, since March 2020, these children have been deprived of these invaluable experiences.
Classes on national TV or online were not designed to meet the diverse needs of children with disabilities either. Not all children, with or without disabilities, have the access or the knowhow to participate in these online classes. But the digital divide has exacerbated the negative impact of the pandemic on this already marginalised group of children. The digital divide also deprived many children and adults with disabilities of access to much-needed healthcare and counseling services that were, during the pandemic period, only available online.
The ways persons with disability need to interact with the environment sometimes enhanced their vulnerabilities to the pandemic. In the aforementioned study, 32-year-old Deepon, a person with a visual disability, explained: "People who can see can maintain physical distance, but in my case, I bump into others. Suppose someone is coughing or sneezing. Other people around him may move away immediately, but I can't. As it happens, sometimes, people cough on me."
"Self-isolation is very difficult, and perhaps almost impossible for some persons with Down Syndrome or intellectual disabilities"—stated a mother, whose child thrives in socialising and has trouble remembering to keep her distance from others or keep her mask on. Despite her best efforts, her child was infected with Covid-19. Inadequacy of physical therapies has also affected the quality of lives of persons with disabilities, leading to aggravated physical difficulties due to the closure of services during the lockdown.
The BIGD and LSHTM study also found that persons with disabilities were more vulnerable to domestic violence during the pandemic, since many family members faced double the stress—financial worries along with the heightened demand for caregiving. Covid-19 also increased the security risks for girls and women with disabilities, particularly with neuro-developmental, sensory and/or psycho-social disabilities. A single mother interviewed in the study explained that when she lost her job as a domestic worker in Dhaka, she had to move to her village with her daughter, who has multiple neuro-developmental disabilities. In Dhaka, she at least knew the people around her. Now, she always remains worried about who might harm her child.
In many cases, persons with disability were the first to lose their job when businesses downsized as a result of the pandemic. On top of that, it is far more difficult for them to find a new job. Nadia, a wheelchair-bound woman who lost a teaching job is now desperately looking for a job that will offer her a wheelchair-accessible environment, which is very hard to find in Bangladesh.
Even before the pandemic, persons with disabilities disproportionately faced poverty, negligence, violence, and other forms of vulnerabilities. Society has largely failed to meet their special needs, and Covid-19 has worsened their crisis.
However, a positive is that the government came up with guidelines for prioritising persons with disabilities for Covid-19 testing, treatment and vaccination. It also increased the coverage of disability allowance during the pandemic, although only a fraction of persons with disabilities in the country benefit from it, and payment was often delayed during the pandemic. Also, the allowance amount of Tk 750 per month is vastly inadequate to sustain them. Even though persons with disabilities faced multifaceted challenges during the pandemic, there was no special allowance for them, or any other initiatives to meet their special needs during this difficult period.
How a society protects and cares for its most vulnerable populations is an indication of how much progress it has made, and persons with disabilities are definitely one of the most vulnerable population groups in Bangladesh. The pandemic has re-emphasised the need for a robust support system for them—fulfilling their economic, social and various other special needs—so that they can have a life of dignity, like others. Now is the time to bolster the demand for a truly disability-inclusive society, making sure that no one is left behind.
Rifat Shahpar Khan is Research Coordinator at the BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD). Lopita Huq is a Research Fellow.