Neglected & Forgotten: Women With Disabilities During COVID-19  

Her Health
7 min read

(On Women's Day, FIT is reposting this story from its archives.)

“I had gone to buy some ration, and my crutches slipped. I fell down. Normally, someone would have come to pick me up. But that day, no one came,a 39-year-old woman with locomotor disability, Ahmednagar, Maharashtra, shares.

The past few months have been difficult for all of us. But anecdotes such as the one above are reminders of the ways in which the pandemic, the lockdown and the enforced physical distancing have impacted certain sections of the society differently - and more importantly - disproportionately.

Women with disabilities, who make up around 11.8 million of the population of India, face discrimination and denial of rights on multiple and intersecting grounds.

The pandemic has only widened these inequalities; increasing difficulties in access and resulting in a lack of social, physical and emotional support at a time that has been particularly turbulent.

In May 2020, NGOs ‘Rising Flame’ and ‘Sightsavers India’ undertook a study on the experiences of women with disabilities in the COVID-19 pandemic in India. A total of 82 women and 12 experts across 19 states, and nine self-identified disability groups participated in the research, titled ‘Neglected & Forgotten: Women With Disabilities During COVID Crisis’.

Access to Information

Findings revealed that 75 out of 82 participants and all those who identified as deaf, deaf blind and hard of hearing faced access barriers with regards to information and communication, digital spaces, remote/digital education, social protection, food and essentials, and physical and psychological support.

The announcements, press releases, news reports and all other information regarding the pandemic have not been available in accessible formats. Participants reported that many applications and websites followed the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, making digital spaces inaccessible. Several guideline reports being circulated are scanned PDF documents which are not readable by screen-readers.

A 35-year-old deaf woman from Delhi, shared her experience of only having been partially informed about the lockdown from her friends. “My friends told me everything is shut. I didn't know what the problem was. Later on, I learnt from ISH news, a news channel for the deaf community. In the beginning, I was just told to stay back at home. They just said, if you got out, you will die.”

There were hurdles in regular communication as well because of the extensive and necessary use of masks, making lip-reading and following facial cues difficult for those with hearing difficulties.

“The Aarogya Setu app is not accessible for people with disability. This is one of the most important apps. There are guidelines being circulated which is not accessible for blind people. It is a scanned document in pdf document. This is not readable by screen-readers. They should be following the web content accessibility guidelines.”
A 31-year-old blind woman, Trivandrum, Kerala  

Moreover, even as we shift towards online payments and banking, many of these apps such as Paytm and Bharat Interface for Money (BHIM) remain inaccessible to the blind and low vision users in the country.

Food and Essentials

While the Disability Inclusive Guidelines for the lockdown have notified enabling door delivery of food and essential services for persons with disabilities, the ground reality is very different. The general fear of the virus among delivery persons often causes them to refuse to go beyond the society gates and visit homes.

“If online store people have dropped the groceries at my society gate, they don’t offer to help. I am not able to pick up the weight, but when I request them to carry it for me, they refuse. I am forced to take the bags up from the gate to my home, and then I spent the whole night in pain”, a 54-year-old woman with locomotor disability, Ghaziabad, Uttar Pradesh, shares.

Activists from Disabled Person’s Organisations (DPOs) have been quoted in the report as saying, “Disabled women are getting weaker because of lack of food. They barely have rice to eat in their houses. Considering this condition, their health is going down even more. And women with kids are facing more health issues. If they are not facing now, then they will for sure face more issues in the coming times.”


Health, Sanitation, and Hygiene

Since many of the persons with disabilities are already immunocompromised, they are especially vulnerable to the novel coronavirus. A common feeling across all participants was the fear and anxiety of exposure to the virus, both for themselves and their caregivers.

They also expressed concerns about quarantine centers being inaccessible to cater to their specific needs, and the barriers imposed by the PPE kits in lip reading and communicating with the doctors.

“I worry that if I were to get hospitalized in this situation, I wouldn’t be able to hear the doctors and the nurses.”
A 35-year-old woman who is hard of hearing, Mumbai, Maharashtra

The lockdown imposed further challenges in accessing necessities such as medicines, menstrual hygiene products, assistive devices such as hearing aid, batteries for hearing aid, gloves for arthritis, and adult diapers, and other non-COVID health services.

A 38-year-old woman with locomotor disability, Bikaner, Rajasthan, narrated her experience: “We do not have enough money to take the car and drive to the doctor. My back is in pain… the doctor in our village has switched off his phone. If we visit them personally, then he does not check us. The government should make arrangements for some conveyance, because even the ambulance was not ready to take... They are only attending to Corona patients.”


Education & Jobs

The education system has responded to the challenge posed by the virus and the lockdown by shifting to online classes and exams. But for persons with disabilities, including both students and teachers, the shift hasn’t been accommodating of their needs.

A 20-year-old deafblind college student, Delhi, shared his concerns, “No special assistance, no captions or text are shared. Most of the assignments are PDFs scanned and sent which means someone needs to read out to me.”

Teaching staff with disabilities were also greatly disadvantaged with the shift online, as they have not been given any training for these platforms and in many cases, these are not fully accessible.

Further, the pandemic has led to lay-offs, pay-cuts and a shift to work-from-home and remote work settings. But for many of these women who retained their jobs, these changed ways of working through video calls and voice calls also come with challenges.

A 35-year-old woman from Mumbai who is hard of hearing, says, “For those of us who depend on lip reading, it’s exhausting. We spend so much time reading the room, by the time we have grasped the conversation, we are exhausted.”

There are so many calls I must attend...No one turns on the video. When they talk fast, I totally lose track of the conversation. At the end when they say “we decided this” - I just agree. Later I call a colleague to find out what I actually signed up for.”

The burden of work is often made worse by the added household chores that fall upon women. A 54-year-old woman with locomotor disability, Ghaziabad, shared, “I asked (my husband) about meal planning since I had a two-hour meeting. He shouted, “I don’t know! You take care of it!”. So, I had to take a break in the middle of the meeting and make something quickly.”


Domestic Violence: The Shadow Pandemic

An indirect impact of the lockdown and the pandemic has been a rise in the cases of domestic abuse. Women and girls with disabilities are also often at the receiving end of violence from their families or people they live with.

Even familial support for those who faced domestic violence was difficult due to the financial strains of the lockdown.

“They [maternal family] told me that they could not support me physically or my expenses anymore and asked me to return to my husband’s house with my small daughter,” a 42-year-old woman with a locomotor disability (Scoliosis), Thane, Maharashtra, shared.

She had moved out of her husband’s house because of domestic violence.

Some Key Recommendations

The report mentions some recommendations to cater to areas where women with disabilities have been denied equal access and availability of resources.

  • Ensuring accessibility of all communications, information, announcements and helplines regarding COVID-19 in a range of accessible formats including sign languages, braille, audio versions and easy to read versions at the same time as it is available to the general population.
  • Caregivers, personal assistants, and interpreters should be categorically exempted from norms of physical distancing.
  • Ensuring doorstep delivery of food and other essentials including menstrual hygiene products to the doorstep of women with disabilities.
  • The disability pension and ex gratia payments under government schemes must be responsive to the added costs incurred by persons with disabilities.
  • Children and youth with disabilities must have equal access to quality and ongoing education. The risk of falling out of the school system, especially for girls with disabilities, must be taken seriously.
  • Persons with disabilities should be able to access, without discrimination, the same level of healthcare including telemedicine and rehabilitation on an equal basis with others.
  • Strategies around domestic violence should consult with and actively involve women with disabilities.
  • Helplines, websites, and other complaint mechanisms regarding gender-based violence should be operational and accessible for women with disabilities facing domestic violence.

It’s also extremely important for women across disabilities to be involved in leadership and decision-making capacities and planning in COVID response committees. While the need for these changes and policies has been heightened during the pandemic and the lockdown, these are issues that need permanent and long-term resolutions for persons with disabilities, even beyond the viral outbreak.

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