Many of the challenges confronting persons with disabilities during lockdown could have been addressed had the government duly enforced its own directives. These are some of the findings of NCPEDP's report 'Locked Down and Left Behind - A Report on the Status of Persons with Disabilities in India during the COVID – 19 Crisis'.
The report also includes data from a survey of 1,067 (approx. 73% male, 27% female) persons with disabilities which showed that over 73% of those interviewed were facing severe challenges on account of the lockdown. Interviews with a subsample of 201 persons with disabilities from across India showed that 67% had no access to doorstep delivery of essentials, and only 22% confirmed that they have access to essentials. 48% had no access to a government helpline, and 63% had not received the financial assistance for persons with disabilities announced by the Finance Ministry.
Many survey respondents (names changed) related their hardships. Santosh, who lives in a remote area, did not receive any relief announced by the government because "the government grassroots worker does not want to come to such a remote area." Pradeep was unable to get medical necessities such as uroba, catheter and CIC pipes, and when he dialled the emergency number 112, they told him to ask his neighbour for help! Moin had no access to medical treatment in his area where he lived, and had to travel forty kilometers to Ahmedabad to get his ear treated.
The report states that these and other similar issues could have been taken care of if the 'Comprehensive Disability Inclusive Guidelines' issued by the Central Government's Department of Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities (DEPwD)had been uniformly enforced across India.
These DEPwD Guildelines provide for such critical requirements as ensuring that "persons with disabilities are given access to essential food, water, medicine, and, to the extent possible, such items should be delivered at their residence or place where they have been quarantined." They also provide that caregivers should be allowed to reach persons with disabilities by exempting them from restrictions during lockdown or providing passes in a simplified manner on priority. Continuation of support services for persons with disabilities with minimum human contact should also be ensured. Under the DEPwD Guidelines, all information about COVID 19 should be available in simple and local language in accessible formats, and a 24X7 Helpline Number at State Level should be set up exclusively for persons with disabilities with facilities of sign language interpretation and video calling.
As per the NCPEDP Report, some states are doing a commendable job. For example,
1. The state of Kerala has ensured that local self-governments are involved in taking special care of persons with disabilities. It has established common kitchens where cooked food is served, while dry rations are provided to those who cannot reach these common kitchens. It has not only released pension dues, but has also made advance payments to help disabled people cope with this challenge. Kerala has also ensured that students with disabilities receive 5000 rupees ex gratia payment.
2.The state of Tamil Nadu has launched a helpline for persons with disabilities catering to people from state to district level. Indian sign language interpreters are also available to cater to deaf and hard of hearing persons. Doorstep medical service such as fixing /changing catheters has been enabled by the Tamil Nadu State Disability Commissioner. Doorstep personal physical therapy has also been enabled.
3.The Government of Nagaland brings out a daily video briefing on COVID-19 status in the state which includes Indian sign language interpretation. A helpline for people with disabilities was set up on the initiative of the Disability Commissioner. A separate number for WhatsApp video calls was also set up for persons who are deaf/hard of hearing.
4.In Assam, under the directive of the State Disability Commissioner, the State Disaster Management Authority has created videos with information on COVID 19 with Indian sign language interpretation and subtitles.
When the Government of India announced a nationwide lockdown to combat COVID – 19, it did so under the directions of the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), which is headed by the Prime Minister. Once the country began functioning in the disaster mode, the National Disaster Management Guidelines on Disability Inclusive Disaster Risk Reduction (DiDRR Guidelines) should come into play to protect the rights and reduce risk among people with disabilities. Finalised by the Government of India is 2019, these guidelines deal with all stages of Disaster Risk Reduction e.g. mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery. As the key ministry in the NDMA, the MHA plays a key role in ensuring that the initiatives of the DePWD are followed. The NDMA also has the power to direct the various ministries to perform necessary functions to ensure a coordinated and effective response to any disaster.
"There are more people with disabilities in India than the entire populations of Ireland, New Zealand, Austria, Uruguay and Kuwait. All the might and reach of the government is needed to provide relief to such vast numbers. The government must secure inclusive response and mitigation not just in the present crisis, but also in any subsequent wave that may well hit us sooner than we think," says Arman Ali, Executive Director, NCPEDP.
The DiDRR Guidelines adopts appropriate inclusive approaches and strategies to "Build Back Better". Building Back Better is a holistic concept using post-disaster reconstruction and recovery as an opportunity to improve a community's physical, social, environmental and economic conditions to create a more resilient community in an effective and efficient way.
"Crises and disasters have often proved a crucible for positive transformation," says Arman Ali, "This is also a good opportunity for the country to Build Back Better, to ensure that people with disabilities are not left in the lurch in any future disaster."
In the words of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, "Persons with disabilities are particularly prone to the rigours of disasters. It is our social responsibility to acknowledge and comprehend their needs….and make response mechanisms adequate and inclusive." The NCPEDP Report recommends that this can be achieved by enforcing the DEPwD Guidelines, securing financial support to all persons with disabilities (not just those with severe disabilities as is being done now), and by implementing the DiDRR Guidelines with its focus on including persons with disabilities and disability organisations to publicly lead and promote universally accessible response, recovery, rehabilitation and reconstruction.