Disability, Inequality and COVID-19: How can we rebuild society inclusively?

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This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders — from around the world and all parts of society — address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future. It aims to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge. Opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.

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By Caroline Harper CBE, Dominic Haslam OBE and Sarah Bourn, Sightsavers

Inequality and inequity existed long before COVID-19 — but the pandemic has shone a clear spotlight on the barriers that people with disabilities face every day in claiming their rights, including access to healthcare, education and employment.

Data from the United Kingdom's Office of National Statistics found that nearly two in three people who died with COVID-19 had a disability. In many countries, vital information and updates on health measures and public movement restrictions have not been provided in accessible formats, and sign language translation has been an afterthought. People with disabilities have been deprioritised in accessing critical health services and equipment. For many, social distancing and lockdown measures have meant a lack of access to personal assistance, restricting many from the support required to meet their basic needs. Women and girls with disabilities have experienced increased levels of violence. And while educators have worked hard to continue providing learning opportunities to students in a variety of ways, these often exclude children with disabilities who may not have access to the equipment and support required.

This disproportionate impact on people with disabilities has been devastating and deadly. All of us, but particularly those of us working in global development, have a responsibility to make sure that this increase in the discrimination and inequality faced by people with disabilities proves to be a catalyst for real and significant change. Many health, education and employment systems have broken down during the pandemic, and we have an opportunity to rebuild them in a way that is more accessible and more inclusive for everyone.

Also on the Forum Network: Today is the International Day of Persons with Disabilities: What are you doing? by Yannis Vardakastanis, President, European Disability Forum

Through our involvement as a member of the International Disability and Development Consortium, Sightsavers has contributed to the Disability Rights Monitor report on COVID-19 and disability. The report analysed more than 2,100 survey responses from 134 countries, and called for the international community to take urgent action to tackle what it has described as the, “catastrophic failure to protect the lives, health and rights of persons with disabilities during the COVID-19 pandemic”.

At Sightsavers, we have been working to make inclusion a fundamental part of everything we do. We are building an evidence base (from significant successes and some equally significant failures) on how best to do this. And our programmes are showing how an inclusive approach to education, employment and health systems can transform lives and communities.

Our United Kingdom aid-funded work, as part of the Inclusive Futures consortium (where we collaborate with partners including the International Disability Alliance), is supporting people working in both formal and informal employment in Bangladesh, Kenya, Nepal, Jordan, Nigeria, Tanzania and Uganda.

People with disabilities are more likely to work informally or be self-employed, so during the COVID-19 pandemic they have been more at risk of losing their income and are less likely to be supported by labour protections. We have provided hygiene kits, emergency cash transfers and training opportunities, and helplines for people experiencing discrimination and abuse.

In the more formal employment sector, we’ve worked to connect jobseekers with potential employers. We have also given companies from Coca-Cola to Unilever training on becoming inclusive employers and developed a toolkit to support them in recruiting more people with disabilities. The toolkit is endorsed by the International Labour Organization and has guidance tailored to CEOs and leaders, human resources professionals and property managers, so all areas of an organisation can work together to create a more inclusive environment.

In Sierra Leone, our Ol Pikin Fo Lan (All Children Will Learn) programme (funded by People’s Postcode Lottery) has seen students with disabilities supported to access education. During the pandemic, the programme has provided care packages to children with disabilities and their families at home, containing everything from learning materials to radios and batteries to soap and sanitary products. By listening to feedback from children, parents and teachers, we’ve been able to adapt the programme to meet their needs during the pandemic.

Also on the Forum Network:  Resilience and Strength Shine Brightest: COVID-19 recovery offers the chance to create a more just, compassionate and sustainable economy for history’s largest generation of youth, by Jayathma Wickramanayake, Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth, United Nations 

Consultation with organisations of persons with disabilities is an essential part of making any programme inclusive. In planning our UK aid-funded Right to Health programme in Pakistan and Bangladesh, we collaborated with organisations of persons with disabilities, community-based organisations and self-help groups to develop targeted outreach approaches, ensuring people traditionally excluded from health interventions would benefit. The programme focuses on making health services accessible to people with disabilities and other marginalised groups. This has been an incredibly valuable learning experience for our teams and has helped tackle stigma in local communities. One of the commitments of the programme is to use lessons learned to affect other health areas, in line with the United Kingdom government’s disability framework.

The most important lesson we have learned in trying to make our work more effective and inclusive is that it’s vital to have people with disabilities and their representative organisations involved every step of the way and be prepared to adapt to the changing environment. Sounds obvious, doesn’t it? But we’re still learning what it means to really put it into practice.

This year, our ability to adapt has been tested more than ever, and we can’t allow things to go back to “normal” which, for many people with disabilities, means a life with fewer opportunities than their peers and their communities. With this in mind, it is critical that all those supporting COVID-19 response and rebuilding efforts — particularly those such as the United Kingdom’s Foreign and Commonwealth Development Office, which has played a leadership role in supporting disability-inclusive development — ensure that people with disabilities are consulted and included.

Letting this opportunity pass by — the opportunity to rebuild our education, employment and health systems in a way that allows all children to learn, all adults to have the opportunity to work and all people the dignity of the health care they need — would be unforgivable.

Banner image: Kieran Jones

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Caroline Harper

CEO, Sightsavers

Caroline has been CEO of Sightsavers since April 2005, during which time it has grown substantially. Under her leadership it has increased its funding and influence within the eye health, neglected tropical diseases and disability arenas, which are of course all interlinked. She is incredibly proud of the team at Sightsavers especially of the way they have risen to the challenge in these difficult times. Prior to working at Sightsavers, Caroline worked in the oil and gas industry, and before that did a PhD in energy studies at Churchill College Cambridge.

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