Coronavirus lockdown | In the pandemic, the disabled remain an invisible minority


Study says 75% of such people were hit by lockdown

In Delhi’s Wazirpur, two families are struggling each day to make it. Pulinder, 49, is paralysed due to an epileptic seizure. For the past two years, his wife, Asha Devi, has been supporting the family. They have a son, who has an undiagnosed ailment that leaves him weak now and then. Ms. Asha Devi wipes a tear and says, “Where should I go now? Should I buy food or medicines?”

Ms. Asha Devi works in a steel line. Post the lockdown, the families have got absolutely no support from the government or from their employer. She has not received wages from the steel line she works at, and Mr. Pulinder has not been able to get access to proper medication for his condition.

Another woman who is a product of deprivation on account of both disability and class is Naznin. Her husband, Sajjaad, lost the use of his legs in an accident two years ago. He needs Ms. Naznin’s assistance for most of his tasks. She sighs in anguish and says, “How can I stand in long lines for ration when there is nobody to take care of him back home? I have three small children to support as well. Who should I ask for help?”

According to a report by the National Centre for the Promotion of Employment for Disabled Persons (NCPEDP) — which includes results from a study of 1,067 people with disabilities (about 73% male, 27% female) — over 73% of those surveyed experienced serious difficulties due to the lockdown.

Locked out
For many like Pulinder and Sajjaad, living with disabilities has been more of a task post-lockdown because of governmental negligence, combined with inaccessibility to healthcare and rewarding employment. A large class divide has become increasingly visible in the lockdown.

According to professional psychologists, individuals with disability and their families are at a greater risk of poor health and quality of life outcomes because either their social status is affected by their disabilities or their disabilities are made worse by the inaccessibility that comes with social status. Lower income levels have been consistently correlated with poor health and inferior quality of life.

For the people with disabilities, however, this is not new, says Preeti Singh, a disability rights activist with cerebral palsy and a student at IIM Calcutta. “We always come as an afterthought for the government. When we have no representation in Parliament, how do you expect them to think of us?”

“Where is the inclusion of people with disabilities in online education? Does the government know how many children have disabilities? Do they have scribes for exams? Are the websites equipped to deal with visual disorders? How many people like Asha can even afford to have an online education?”

“People with disabilities have pre-existing conditions like MRSA [an infection], or have compromised spinal cords, which make them more susceptible to virus infection. There is no accessibility in the quarantine centres, and I personally know people who have had horrifying experiences because of lack of accessibility,” says Ms. Singh.

Ms. Asha Devi and Ms. Naznin’s struggle to feed their families points to a larger problem of invisibilisation of the struggles of persons with disability.

“For every political party, you have a religious minority cell, a caste cell, a women’s cell, have you ever heard of a disability rights cell?” asks Nipun Malhotra, CEO of Nipman foundation, and Wheels for Life, a disability rights organisation. Mr. Malhotra has a condition called arthrogryposis. He says, “there is no representation in Parliament, and hence, nobody to ensure the policy made for us is intersectional in nature.”

Socially distant
Social distancing is a privilege for the marginalised classes, and is worse for those with disabilities. The government has offered no respite.

“The pandemic has various implications for people with disabilities. Look at quarantine centres, we don’t have accessibility there. The concept of social distancing is redundant for people who need assistance for everything. I need somebody’s help to do the basic task of washing hands. How do I practise social distancing?” asks Mr. Malhotra.

Rahmat Ali, a social worker who runs Vir Abdul Hamid Yuva Club, an NGO, has been helping the families with access to food. He says, “For families such as these, the crisis is harder to deal with considering that they have been deprived of two things, able bodies and financial sustainability. It is therefore imperative that the government should act.”

For a person like Mr. Pulinder, who needs assistance for basic tasks, it is highly unlikely that provisions have been made taking into account disability.

Ms. Naznin, like many others, is yet to receive not just the wages. She has not received the ₹1,000 promised by the government for daily wagers.

She says she needs to allocate for Mr. Sajjad’s medicinal needs and the other immediate needs.

In spite of talk of redressing caste, class, gender and other types of discrimination, disability from systemic oppression has largely been ignored. Mental health is further pushed into invisibilisation and stigmatisation. COVID-19 is worsening it.

“We must think of PwDs living alone, those quarantined in centres, and ensure that Persons with Disability are given basic facilities if their primary caregiver is quarantined,” says Mr. Malhotra.

“There must be a consolidated Ministry, instead of just rebranding us as “divyaang” or just saying that an effort is being made,” Ms. Singh says.

“We need an interlinking of policymakers with disability as the focus. The best way to do that is to create Joint Secretary-level positions for disability affairs in the Health, Home and Information and Broadcasting Ministries. These officers would connect the department and concerned Ministries, ensuring disability is not overlooked during policy formulation,” says Mr. Malhotra, and Ms. Singh concurs.

(The writer is an independent journalist based in Delhi)

Courtesy The Hindu

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