Coronavirus crisis: Have we Overlooked the Disabled Population?

By Shruti Pushkarna

In my last column when I raised a question on whether the media really cares about the disabled population, I didn’t know two weeks later, we would face a more pertinent issue of whether the country is bothered about anyone with a disability in this time of crisis.

Coronavirus has left the entire world panicking today. I’m not going to cite any numbers as there is enough data floating around the internet past few weeks. In fact, it’s exhausting to follow all the reports, statistics and even worse, speculation. Grounded in their homes, people are pulling out all kinds of conspiracy theories behind this global pandemic.

Some imaginable, some outrageous, some totally inane. But underneath all of this, is a feeling of deep anxiety that no one is safe anywhere. Vulnerability is at the root, leaving all human beings equally exposed to an unknown enemy.

I hate to say it like this, but this susceptibility has diminished the lines between the ‘able’ and the ‘disabled’.

If you thought your ‘healthy’ and ‘able-bodied’ status makes you less prone to the virus, revisit some of the news reports and you’ll be shocked. Having said that, I must add it’s true that anyone with an impairment or an existing condition suffers a greater risk of contracting the virus. But unlike humans, Covid-19 doesn’t discriminate.

However, the response mechanism continues to overlook the needs of persons with disabilities. We have been reading reports about other vulnerable sections like the elderly, patients with chronic illnesses but nothing on the disabled.

It’s an established fact that this virus attacks the pulmonary functions of the body. People with certain disabilities like muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy or any other condition from genetic abnormalities are likely to have respiratory disorders. Catching coronavirus could seriously imperil their lives.

Is our medical system equipped to deal with disabled people if they test positive or if they need to be quarantined? I’m afraid not. The horrific pictures of isolation centres circling on social media don’t promise ease of access for someone with a physical disability.

On a regular day, doctors and hospital staff rely heavily on the disabled person’s next of kin (who is often the caretaker) to assist with any treatment, check-up etc. Persons with intellectual disability find it hard to stay calm alone or among strangers. What happens in this situation where the answer to everything begins with isolation?

As for preventive measures, ‘social distancing’ seems to be the only way of reducing the chances of contagion. There are a zillion videos and posts on social media, both informative and funny on the various do’s and don’ts. But hardly anything (barring a few blogposts by disabled individuals themselves) on how to ensure safety of a disabled person locked down in his or her home.

More importantly, can a disabled person who is dependent on a caretaker even exercise absolute social distancing? Blind people use physical contact to navigate around, how do we eliminate the chances of them picking up the virus in such a scenario. They rely on braille and tactile markings in unknown spaces, feeling their way through things. How can they exercise the ‘no-touching-surfaces’ rule? Likewise, individuals with certain physical disabilities are unable to wash their hands or sanitize their surroundings, as they are dependent on others for activities of daily living (ADL).

While non-profit institutions and individuals engaged in working with persons with different disabilities have been circulating information, guidelines, advisories to small groups and communities, it took a few days for the government to realise that all important material needs to be released in an accessible format for people with blindness, hearing impairment or any other form of print disability. The Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment has finally requested the central and state health departments to issue all Covid-19 related information keeping the disabled population in mind. Meaning, advisories to be made available in audio formats, braille, with subtitles, in sign language, with optical character recognition (OCR) etc.

No doubt the administration is trying hard to counter and cope with this calamity, but we the citizens have an equal part to play. Spreading awareness about the easily affected (and ignored) sections of the population is one of them.