Elizabeth Lockwood
Orsolya Bartha

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14 April 2020
Will the SDGs Still be Relevant after the Pandemic? A Disability Rights Perspective
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The SDGs need to be re-focused into feasible and inclusive life-saving actions that can be and are carried out for people everywhere.

The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent policies are affecting persons with disabilities in grave ways, including greater risk of contracting COVID-19, increased barriers in accessing healthcare services, disruptions in needed services, and lack of access to public information and healthcare communication messages.

The SDGs can survive if they address the critical situation faced by many communities globally, including persons with disabilities, just as the Goals emerged from stories at the grassroots level around the globe.

The disability movement engaged in the UN’s negotiations on the post-2015 development agenda, with our community members from all parts of the world presenting their experiences and priorities to governments at the UN during the development of the SDGs. It is these stories and others from people around the world that formed the bedrock of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

For the last four years, governments have tried to translate the SDGs into national policies with limited outcomes. But moving forward, the SDGs need to be re-focused into feasible and inclusive life-saving actions that can be and are carried out for people everywhere.

During and in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, the SDGs will remain relevant only if governments reframe the Goals to be part of the fabric of people’s lives. The SDGs can survive, and even thrive, if they meaningfully and universally address the critical situation faced by many communities globally, including persons with disabilities, just as the Goals emerged from stories at the grassroots level around the globe.

The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent policies are affecting persons with disabilities in grave ways, including greater risk of contracting COVID-19, increased barriers in accessing healthcare services, disruptions in needed services, and lack of access to public information and healthcare communication messages. Persons with disabilities may be at greater risk of contracting COVID-19 for various reasons. While simply having a disability does not put someone at higher risk, many persons with disabilities do have specific disabilities or chronic conditions that make COVID-19 more dangerous for them. COVID-19 can exacerbate existing health conditions for some persons with disabilities, particularly those related to respiratory function, immune system function, heart disease or diabetes.

Some persons with disabilities may have difficulty carrying out physical distancing because of the need for additional support or because they are institutionalized. Moreover, persons with disabilities may also be disproportionately impacted by the outbreak because of serious disruptions to the services they rely on, such as difficulty on relying on personal assistants who may become sick, or have difficulty traveling.

Many persons with disabilities may encounter barriers to access vital public information and healthcare communication messages, including in sign language, captions, braille, audio, large print, plain language and in easy-read format. For key recommendations related to this, please refer to documents from the World Federation of the Deaf, the World Blind Union, and the International Federation of Hard of Hearing People.

Persons with disabilities may encounter increased barriers in accessing healthcare services. As COVID-19 spreads, many countries may rely on existing best-practice protocols for rationing treatment if they have more COVID-19 patients than beds. Some of those protocols, for example in some states in the US, stipulate that in such cases some persons with disabilities will be deprioritized. Consequently, decisions could be made that would impact persons with disabilities, including on who should or should not receive care and, if they do, what level of care.

Women with disabilities can be particularly at risk. Women with disabilities are up to ten times more likely to experience sexual violence than women without disabilities, and this violence can be exacerbated during mandated lockdowns, shelter-in-place orders, and other periods of isolation. Additionally, most shelters and other programs are inaccessible to women with disabilities. (More information here.)

To address this critical situation, the Stakeholder Group of Persons with Disabilities is providing the following recommendations, actions, and protective measures that can be carried out by governments, healthcare providers, service providers, and communities. It is important to keep in line with the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) in particular, Articles 4.3, 6, 9, 10, 11, 21, 25, and 26, as well as the SDGs, in particular Goals 2 (zero hunger), 3 (good health and well being), 4 (quality education), 5 (gender equality), 10 (reduced inequalities), 11 (sustainable cities and communities), and 16 (peace, justice and strong institutions).

The International Disability Alliance has shared the following key recommendations to support a disability-inclusive response to the COVID-19 crisis: 

  1. Persons with disabilities must receive information about infection mitigating tips, public restriction plans, and services offered in a diversity of accessible formats with use of accessible technologies;
  2. Additional protective measures must be taken for people with certain types of impairment;
  3. Rapid awareness-raising and training of personnel involved in the response is essential;
  4. All preparedness and response plans must be inclusive of and accessible to women with disabilities;
  5. No disability-based institutionalization or abandonment is acceptable;
  6. During quarantine, support services, personal assistance, physical and communication accessibility must be ensured;
  7. Public restriction measures must consider persons with disabilities on an equal basis with others;
  8. Persons with disabilities in need of health services due to COVID-19 cannot be deprioritized on the basis of their disability;
  9. Representative organizations of persons with disabilities (OPDs) can and should play a key role in raising awareness of persons with disabilities and their families; and
  10. OPDs can and should play a key role in advocating for disability-inclusive response to the COVID-19 crisis.

To complement this, UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities Catalina Devandas has provided clear recommendations:

  • States should establish clear protocols for public health emergencies to ensure that, when medical resources are scarce, access to healthcare, including life-saving measures, does not discriminate against people with disabilities;
  • Information about how to prevent and contain the coronavirus must be accessible to everyone;
  • Public advice campaigns and information from national health authorities must be made available to the public in sign language and through accessible means, modes and formats, including accessible digital technology, captioning, relay services, text messages, easy-to-read and plain language; and
  • OPDs should be consulted and involved in all stages of the COVID-19 response.

The World Health Organization (WHO) and public health authorities around the world are taking action to contain the COVID-19 outbreak. As part of this, the WHO released disability considerations including actions for persons with disabilities and their households, governments, healthcare workers, disability service providers, and the community.

CBM Global prepared a COVID19 resource including:

  • Top-line advocacy messages that can be used for advocacy and communications;
  • Questions to ask yourself/or other stakeholders to check how people with disabilities are being included; and
  • Key resources for further reading.

As the COVID-19 crisis grows around the world, it is critical that lawmakers, healthcare providers, educational institutions, transportation, housing, and other critical services uphold the civil and human rights of persons with disabilities.

The authors of this guest article are Elizabeth Lockwood, CBM Global Disability Inclusion, and Orsolya Bartha, International Disability Alliance, members of the Stakeholder Group of Persons with Disabilities for Sustainable Development. 

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