WORK, DISABILITY AND COVID-19: The pandemic of Covid-19 has been a difficult time. The lockdown has changed the lives of almost everyone everywhere, in every field. People worldwide have been losing their jobs, and the ones who do have a job and can do it online, have been doing it online. Going to work everyday has become a dangerous task, and various precautions need to be taken to stay healthy.

The lives of differently-abled people has always been difficult, and they have always had a lot of challenges to face. But this pandemic has made it clear that when any catastrophe happens in the world, it affects the differently-abled a lot worse than it affects anyone else.

The society has generally discriminated against differently abled people and employers have found an excuse to not employ them by saying that they will not be able to come into the workplace and perform certain tasks that are required. But this lockdown is proof that quite a significant portion of the work that is being done, can be done from home. So not allowing differently abled people to work from home has been a form of discrimination that has curbed their potential and their growth.

Differently abled persons are facing a lot of challenges during this lockdown, such as blind people who generally rely on touch to go places and identify things, not being able to do that anymore due to the cleanliness factor, and they won’t even be able to ask people for help since the people they ask might be carriers of the virus.

People with disabilities are also more susceptible to viruses like Covid-19. Hand-washing has been mandated as a normal precaution, but persons with disabilities face serious limitations to follow this practice frequently. Besides, there is a lack of public toilets for them. Next is social-distancing, but most persons with disabilities depend on others due to physiological constraints. Many disabled have to frequently visit hospitals and rehabilitation centres.

Further, most of the persons with disabilities are largely dependent on the caregivers, family, relatives or professionals. Many caregivers may be reluctant to provide their services as the coronavirus is highly contagious. Persons with intellectual impairment cannot be expected to practice or cope with self-isolation.

Numerous welfare measures have been initiated by the government for the differently abled. The Centre will provide three months pension in advance to the disabled under its National Social Assistance Programme. The government also announced an ex-gratia of ₹1,000 over three months in two instalments for persons with disabilities. The National Platform for the Rights of the Disabled has expressed dismay as the ex-gratia amount is “very meagre” and “grossly inadequate”. A lot of the disabled don’t have a disability certificate, thus they will not be able to avail of government schemes.

The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare issued the first advisory on March 5, 2020. Comprehensive disability-inclusive guidelines were issued along with it and the Department of Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities recognised that persons with disabilities are more vulnerable to the virus because of their physical, sensory and cognitive limitations. However, actual implementation of these guidelines requires long-term preparedness and mass awareness.

The Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment asked the departments in collaboration with the States to make Covid-19 related information accessible in audio-formats and Braille for visually impaired people.

There are a large number of workers who are moderately impaired. Like most informal workers, they have migrated to different corners of the country in search of livelihood. These people are panicking and want to return home. Thus, it is crucial that stranded persons with disabilities be rehabilitated on priority basis. An official online portal can be created to specially disseminate authentic information related to the coronavirus crisis to persons with disabilities, in regional languages. Many services required on a daily basis for persons with disabilities are suspended. Access to aid and devices for the disabled during the lockdown should be made available. Alternative provisions should be made for the persons with disabilities who don’t have disability certificates so that they could avail government services.

Persons with disabilities with chronic illness are going through mental trauma, thinking that they won’t be able to access groceries or medicine if the supply runs short. Door-step delivery should be ensured for free or at affordable rates. Direct cash assistance can be provided along with special provisions under the public distribution system for persons with disabilities.

There should be separate rehabilitation and quarantine centres for the disabled population. Special training may be required for health professionals to deal with persons with disabilities when quarantined.

A large number of persons with disabilities are beggars and homeless. Reasonable accommodation could reduce the risk of contamination. For example, Australia has reserved a separate time slot in supermarkets only for PWDs and senior citizens.

These steps should be taken as soon as possible to reduce the suffering that these people are already facing.

Riya Sinha | Member | Centre for Rights of Differently Abled

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