Protecting People with Disabilities in the Ebbs and Flows of the COVID-19 Pandemic

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Protecting People with Disabilities in the Ebbs and Flows of the COVID-19 Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic and measures taken to combat it are having a disproportionate impact on people with disabilities. To protect their rights during this pandemic and post-crisis, their needs must be taken into account in global response and recovery efforts.

In an addendum to John F. Kennedy’s famous ‘rising tides’ quote, Warren Buffett once mused that ‘only when the tide goes out do you discover who has been swimming naked’. This widely-cited quote makes clear that when adversity hits, problems that have been lurking under the surface come to light. Against the background of the COVID-19 pandemic, this statement applies to the rights of several marginalised groups, and particularly people with disabilities. Indeed, the pandemic has served to dramatically heighten certain challenges that individuals with disabilities encounter in their everyday lives, including inaccessibility of structures and facilities as well as isolation and exclusion from the community. In this light, taking disability considerations into account in global preparedness initiatives is more important than ever.

In the context of the current pandemic, people with disabilities are a high-risk group, as highlighted by the World Health Organization. It is widely acknowledged that such individuals may have pre-existing health conditions underlying their disabilities; or they may have their diagnoses delayed, as medical staff often assume that new conditions relate to existing impairments. In addition, they may encounter barriers in following basic hygiene measures due to inaccessible facilities; they might not be able to social distance because of their need for physical assistance; and they may encounter barriers to accessing information related to public health. This makes them more susceptible to the impact of the pandemic than others. Notwithstanding this, in a Statement issued in March 2020, the then United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, Ms Catalina Devandas, expressed concern that little had been done up to that point to provide people with disabilities with the support needed to safeguard their rights during the COVID-19 pandemic.

People with disabilities and their families have faced substantial new challenges during the ongoing crisis, and the existing difficulties that they encounter in their everyday lives have been greatly magnified. In low- and middle-income countries, where approximately 80% of people with disabilities live, the challenges that have emerged are particularly severe. Alongside Human Rights Watch and the International Disability Alliance, the European Disability Forum – an umbrella organisation that seeks to defend the interests of over 100 million Europeans with disabilities – has highlighted that the ongoing pandemic has resulted in the deaths of a disproportionate number of inhabitants of residential institutions and group homes, where many older people and those with disabilities live. In addition, many service providers that give people with disabilities, particularly those with intellectual disabilities, and their families essential support have lost funding and closed down, leaving them feeling overwhelmed and alone. This has affected women, in particular, who are often the primary carers for their family member with a disability. The pandemic has also had a disproportionate effect on workers with disabilities, who may be faced with inaccessible working environments in their homes – such as inaccessible computer hardware or software, or furniture that is not sufficiently adjusted to enable everyday work – and the resulting extra costs to remedy that inaccessibility. Moreover, some students with disabilities have encountered considerable barriers in accessing quality inclusive education, caused by inaccessible digital content and interfaces used for online education. For instance, blind students may struggle with interactive elements of online learning, such as chats or polls. All of this has resulted in increased exclusion from society for many people with disabilities. Moreover, as pointed out elsewhere, a worrying climate of ableism – which characterises people with disabilities as inferior to others – is calling into question the value that is placed on the lives of such individuals, many of whom have reported discrimination in accessing ventilators, which are sometimes rationed or reserved for patients who are deemed to be ‘healthier’.

The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) includes measures to ensure that the rights of persons with disabilities are adequately protected in the face of the COVID-19 crisis. It requires States Parties to take into consideration their rights in domestic responses to situations of risk and humanitarian emergencies. Article 11 of the CRPD takes on particular significance during the ongoing pandemic, as it requires that States Parties adopt all possible measures to ensure the protection and safety of persons with disabilities in accordance with their obligations under international law. This includes measures to ensure access to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health without discrimination, prevention of infectious diseases, and protection against isolation and stigmatisation that may arise on account of the pandemic.

Against the background of the Global Forum on the COVID-19 crisis and people with disabilities, States are being urged to take all appropriate measures to enable people with disabilities and their family members and carers to maintain their health and safety, and to support their independent living in the community. Human rights preparedness and response planning must entail a human rights-based approach – which promotes respect for the inherent dignity of people with disabilities, values impairments as part of human diversity, and upholds the values of non-discrimination on the basis of disability and equal opportunities. In their recent Joint Statement, the Chair of the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the Special Envoy of the UN Secretary-General on Disability and Accessibility drew attention to the fact that States should consider the diversity among persons with disabilities, with a particular focus on gender and age. Global response and recovery efforts should also be inclusive of, and accessible to, people with disabilities and their representative organisations, in accordance with Article 11 of the CRPD. UNICEF has urged States to enhance risk reduction and in-country preparedness by engaging with Disabled People’s Organisations (DPOs) in designing and delivering prevention and response plans, and by supporting the participation of DPOs in local and national coordination mechanisms. Furthermore, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, in its Thematic Study on the rights of persons with disabilities under Article 11 CRPD, has urged States and other relevant actors to ensure effective dissemination of accessible information at all stages of an emergency (such as the present one), to mobilise resources and to build the capacity of those intervening in emergency situations regarding the rights of persons with disabilities.

There is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic has amplified the poor conditions and unacceptable violations of the rights of people with disabilities that continue to occur on a global scale. This worsening situation has been caused by a mixture of factors that include cost factors and lack of prioritisation of the needs of people with disabilities, sometimes on account of a lack of political will. Failure to consult with DPOs and persons with disabilities themselves has led to a lack of awareness of their needs. Thus, blanket policies were applied that ignored disability considerations. In some instances, people with disabilities have simply been forgotten and overlooked, a common experience for them, unfortunately.

When the tide of the pandemic began to flow and even more so when the high water mark was reached, the existing socio-economic inequalities and risk situations encountered by people with disabilities were exposed and exacerbated. In order to avoid widening the existing disparities even further when the tide ebbs (and the pandemic eases), appropriate support measures must be provided for these individuals now and in the post-crisis period. This is essential so that the ongoing pandemic does not become a real disability rights crisis.

In sum, the global response to this pandemic must not continue to neglect marginalised citizens. People with disabilities, in particular, must not be left behind, and States must take all appropriate actions in their respective COVID-19 response and recovery efforts, in line with Article 11 of the CRPD.

Andrea Broderick

Written by Andrea Broderick

Andrea Broderick is an Assistant Professor at the Department of International and European Law at Maastricht University. Andrea is also the National Director and EMA Director (on behalf of Maastricht University) of the European Master’s Programme in Human Rights and Democratisation.

Cite as: Broderick, Andrea. "Protecting People with Disabilities in the Ebbs and Flows of the COVID-19 Pandemic", GC Human Rights Preparedness, 14 September 2020,


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