How COVID-19 is Affecting Persons with Disabilities Worldwide: Finding Opportunity in Adversity

This blog post has been contributed by Portulans Senior Fellow Shane Kanady and Research Assistant Augusta Rentenbach, additionally co-authored by John Kelly, Isabel Hodge, Ronald Kasule and Petra Iuliana.

COVID-19 has affected us all. The changes in our daily lives will surely lead to long-term effects for many, if not all, aspects of society. As we adapt to new norms, we must remember that global crises have a disproportionate impact on already marginalized groups. The effects can become compounded due to the intersection of identities, such as with persons with disabilities who may also be impacted due to age, gender, geography, race, social status and many other factors that limit their access to resources. Whether it is due to faltering economic and workforce systems, the effects of inherently exclusionary policy making, or examples of ableism found in practices such as medical rationing, there is a possibility that responses to COVID-19 may exacerbate long standing challenges for persons with disabilities across the world. Such challenges extend to the area of employment, which can serve as a proxy indicator of economic and social inclusion.

It could be argued that the movement to recognize the contributions of persons with disabilities was gaining momentum during the past decade. But, over the span of several months, we have witnessed how progress may be lost in the scramble to contain the spread of the pandemic and forestall economic disaster. This is evident in the business world where diversity and inclusion or corporate social responsibility efforts give way to the basic need for survival. The cyclical nature of economic boom and bust have not proven to be kind to the employment of persons with disabilities, who are often considered the “last hired and first fired.”

But, what if we can turn the tide? What if this is the inflection point in history that disrupts the vicious cycle of chronic underinvestment, dependence, and structural violence experienced by persons with disabilities? We can refuse to accept the loss of human potential and innovation by taking purposeful action to confront the economic, political and social costs of exclusion. However, a concerted effort is needed.

The accumulation of these costs is the framework adopted by the Portulans Institute to understand and express the effects of exclusion on individuals, firms and countries across the world. COVID-19 provides a tragic yet important case study to not only learn from, but also to employ as a call to purposeful action. This post lays out some of the early findings of the impact of the pandemic on persons with disabilities from an international perspective, and proposes an opportunity to reframe adversity as opportunity.

 

Emerging Trends Related to Covid-19

The experiences of persons with disabilities during the pandemic point to concerning levels of fragility in their employment, and therefore economic circumstances and their health.

Persons with disabilities are often excluded from the workplace, and this has only worsened with the rise of the economic recession that has come as a result of the pandemic. A study conducted by Global Disability Inclusion stated that 38% of persons with a disability surveyed were laid off, furloughed or had to shut down their business due to COVID-19, and two-thirds expect to experience acute economic insecurity over the next year. Although many countries are facing recession, it is important to remember the need for inclusive recovery efforts that consider underrepresented groups.

The situation of persons with disabilities who are self employed in the informal economy is particularly challenging. These workers may find it necessary to rely on federal benefits programs to maintain their livelihoods due to the tenuous nature of such jobs and the challenge of earning a living wage while affording healthcare coverage. Trade unions have highlighted the vulnerable situation of workers with disabilities in the informal economy, particularly in respect to the measures taken to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. 

Persons with disabilities are more likely to have health conditions that increase the risk of getting COVID-19. Similarly to the Global Disability Inclusion study, the International Labour Organization (ILO) states that “generally, persons with disabilities are less able to ensure physical distancing, face accessibility barriers in obtaining relevant information, and may experience a worsening of existing social isolation and enhanced exposure to violence and harassment.” They continue by saying: “the over-representation of persons with disabilities among the poor and in the informal economy increases their risk of infection. Many of these risks are compounded for women and older persons with disabilities.”

The experiences of persons with disabilities during the pandemic is greatly impacted by the cultural context of countries, which also has a bearing on the behavior of public institutions and the private sector. We have seen extreme examples of discriminatory behaviors exhibited through medical rationing practices used in some countries, representing a conflict between the scarcity of resources and the assignment of priorities for who should receive care. A different form of discrimination, also based on scarcity, plays out in the context of employment where persons with disabilities are often the first to lose their jobs during periods of recession and are then less likely to return to work quickly during periods of recovery. These are just two examples of disparities between the realities of persons with and without disabilities.

Through the lived experiences of other colleagues, we are able to demonstrate how persons with disabilities are navigating this moment in history in other parts of the world, namely in Romania and Uganda.

 

Romania

In Romania, there are still issues with institutionalized persons with disabilities. Nursing homes and special care facilities, where many of these persons live, are taking strict measures such as restricting their access. This can be difficult because if there is a confirmed case, it means all persons living in that home will have to be isolated. Another challenge is faced by persons with disabilities who receive in-home care. Due to the state of emergency in Romania, it is difficult for caregivers to arrive on time, not to mention the difficulty of finding necessary medical supplies since most are being used to help fight COVID-19. Nevertheless, there are some delivery services who have stepped up during this time by providing doorstep delivery for both food and necessities. Volunteers have also been helpful by going above and beyond to supplement the limitations on available services. Yet we have to remember this is only available to these persons living in Romania’s big cities or those who have access to smartphones.  With school moved completely online, it proves a difficult challenge for children with disabilities because they are not receiving the one on one attention they normally receive.

Prior to the pandemic, lobbyists and advocates from the state and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) were fighting to encourage employers to hire persons with disabilities. The Romainan government was even offering a tax deduction to those companies who agreed to hire persons with disabilities. Unfortunately, this effort has been put on hold due to current events. Due to the recession that is closely following the pandemic, there is reason to be concerned that many of these persons with disabilities who previously held a job have been laid off or furloughed.

In 2019, Romania was ranked 47th overall in the Network Readiness Index (NRI). Related subrankings included 49th in Governance, 40th in Impact, 66th in People, and 41st in Technology compared to other economies. The report noted that Romania scores in the top three of upper-middle income countries.  In the 2020 Global Talent Competitiveness Index (GTCI), Romania ranked 64th with a subranking breakdown of 84th in Business Landscape, 75th in Market Landscape, and 98th in Regulatory Landscape. Though ranked near the top three of its peers in a comparison of national income, Romania has much opportunity to develop and deploy innovations that allow technology to benefit businesses and workers. Romania’s ICT Use and Government Efficiency sub-indicator in the NRI is ranked 96th and Government Online Services ranked 77th, which means that accessibility to government services is lagging behind the curve of Romania’s digital innovation.

In conclusion, the situation in Romania is challenging. The government wants to do the right thing by incentivizing hiring persons with disabilities but with the pandemic, it has become even more difficult to make progress. Romania’s example is a clear reminder that the adoption of more inclusive policies and business practices that benefit persons with disabilities is an issue all countries need to focus on.

 

Uganda

In Uganda, over 90 percent of persons with disabilities are not employed in the formal sector. They depend on casual employment, including shoe-repairing, phone-repairing, hawking, working in open-markets, and earning a living begging on the streets. This means they have little to no savings and their daily meals come from the money they earn that day.

Since the government placed strict measures to combat this virus, these persons are at risk of starvation. Unfortunately, the planned government food relief for vulnerable peoples has not specifically benefited persons with disabilities, and has increased the risk of police brutality towards those who are looking to find food for themselves and their family. According to the National Task Force Committee, vulnerable categories addressed by the government program  involved taxi drivers, motorcycle riders, saloon people, pregnant mothers and older persons who were thought to have been greatly affected by the quarantine measures due to their nature of earning a living.

The Government’s approach to stopping COVID-19 seems to have been influenced by the traditional belief that regards persons with disabilities as people who cannot work and depend on social welfare.

The National Union of the Disabled Persons of Uganda further highlighted barriers that the planning authority should consider:

  1. Persons with disabilities are at increased risk of developing more severe symptoms and dying due to weak immune systems, inaccessible healthcare institutions, homelessness, neglect, experiences of discrimination and traumatization in the systems that should be protecting them.
  2. Persons with visual impairments, for example, are susceptible to contracting COVID-19 since they heavily rely on third parties such as guides/helpers in their day-to-day lives. Social distancing of at least four meters is hard for persons with visual impairment since they have to depend on support persons while carrying out their daily duties.
  3. Communication gaps, such as lack of sign language interpreters at the health centers, make it hard for deaf people to access proper health facilities since they are not able to effectively communicate with the health workers. The requirement of calling RDCs on the phone in case of emergencies is difficult, especially for certain persons with disabilities such as the deaf. This situation would be ameliorated by allowing the use of sign language interpreters to accompany deaf individuals  to health facilities.
  4. Inaccessible health centers and facilities make it difficult for people with disabilities to access the services due to the limited ramps. Some of the ramps available do not meet the accessibility standards that are in the Building Control Act. This makes it hard for persons with mobility challenges to access health services especially during this pandemic with the stringent guidelines in place.
  5. There exist barriers in accessing health information on how to protect themselves against the virus and how to manage it in case of anything. Some disability categories are disadvantaged for instance the deaf, blind and the Deafblind persons when the information is disseminated in inaccessible modes.

In 2019, Uganda was ranked 110th overall in the NRI. Related subrankings included 94th in Governance, 120th in Impact, 113th in People, and 102nd in Technology. Households with internet access (116th) or Availability of Local Online Content (114th) are also notable weaknesses – with effects for persons with disabilities.

In the 2020 GTCI, Uganda ranked 113th overall with comparative measures of 80th in Business Landscape, 119th in Market Landscape, and 98th in Regulatory Landscape. Uganda has considerable opportunities to move up the international rankings for innovation, technology utilization and talent competitiveness – but progress will surely be impacted by COVID-19. Importantly, efforts to improve in these areas must consider and fully include persons with disabilities

 

COVID-19, the Aspirations of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities,  and Sustainable Development Goals

In May 2020, United Nations (UN) Secretary General Antonio Guterres published his Policy Brief: A Disability-Inclusive Response to COVID-19. The report states, “ Everything we do during and after the COVID-19 crisis must have a strong focus on building more equal, inclusive and sustainable economies and societies that are more resilient in the face of pandemics and the many other global challenges we face.”

COVID-19 recovery efforts are tied to the progress towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals: we must build back better and leave no one behind.  In the Policy Brief mentioned above, key actions are listed such as the importance of engaging persons with disabilities at all stages of response; prioritizing them in the socio-economic response; tracking inclusion and empowerment in national response and recovery plans; improving health outcomes; building sustainable and disability-inclusive protection systems; addressing the situation of workers in all sectors; investing in community-based solutions and initiating multi-stakeholder dialogue and collaboration.

There are systemic challenges inherent in these proposed actions.  For example, there are no official stats on how COVID-19 has impacted the employment rate of persons with disabilities in the United Kingdom. Based on previous recessions, the expectation and belief is that this population will again be disproportionately affected and that job losses will occur in lower paid and entry-level occupations (retail, hospitality and leisure where people with disabilities are disproportionately employed) versus those in higher skilled roles.  The lack of data (which is not unique to the UK) makes it very difficult to measure against the Secretary General’s response. This is not a unique obstacle, and similar challenges are facing other countries worldwide.

Without a doubt, the COVID-19 response of the 182 countries that have ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) is being tested as well as the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the UN Disability Inclusion Strategy.

 

An Inflection Point: Opportunity from Adversity 

If we recognize the factors that contribute to the social and economic exclusion of persons with disabilities, surely we can collectively do something to combat them. The pandemic has demonstrated how quickly millions of people can find themselves experiencing a disabling condition: one that does not yet have a cure, where survival is not assured and those who do recover may yet experience long-term effects. It is commonly acknowledged that the disability community is the only minority group that someone can, and may likely, join at some point as a result of an accident, ageing, illness or man-made and natural disasters. If we accept that exclusion is rooted in the fear of perceived differences, perhaps we can acknowledge the parallels between what many people are experiencing, perhaps for the first time, and what some persons with disabilities experience each and every day (inaccessible public services, economic hardship, health challenges, isolation, etc).

Along with the known physical effects of COVID-19, there are sure to be a range of impacts in the form of mental distress and emotional trauma. This may be due to prolonged quarantine protocols, limited social interactions with loved ones or a general disconnectedness from society. This may also come in the form of understandable fears about public spaces and exposure to the virus, perhaps long after a vaccine is discovered and made available. In more extreme cases, there are compounding effects for internally displaced persons and others who are already in crisis situations.

Still more health-related consequences may arise as a result of increasing levels of poverty. As economies across the globe are disrupted, there are sure to be residual effects on the physical and psychological wellness of people associated with the loss of employment and income. And while all of this is occurring, governments will be creating policies to address health and economic matters simultaneously, while likely overlooking the unique circumstances of those most in need of assistance.

Can this point in history reveal just how similar we all are in our basic needs and that perceived differences can evaporate for millions of people in the span of a few months? How can people, firms and governments react differently to direct trends rather than be subject to the consequences of inaction? What information is needed to clearly demonstrate the economic, political and social costs at the intersection of exclusion and the effects of a global health crisis to better inform our individual and collective responses? In which ways can we harness digital innovation to directly benefit persons with disabilities, learning from the mistakes and oversights of COVID-19 responses? These are questions that the Portulans Institute will pose in our engagement with community leaders, private industry and the public sector to inform our research in support of a more inclusive future for persons with disabilities.

COVID-19 will continue to affect us all in the months and years to come. The question is whether we can find opportunities to advance society despite the difficulty of the crisis.

Interested parties should contact Shane Kanady, Senior Fellow, at kanady@portulansinstitute.org.