Including Children with Disabilities During COVID-19

Written by Alexander Mentkowski

During global pandemics, the role of government is vital in protecting its citizens. Unfortunately, not all citizens are always included in government responses to emergencies, and the COVID-19 crisis is another example of this. One group of citizens that is often excluded are people/children with disabilities (P/CWDs).

In China, a teenager named Yan Cheng, with cerebral palsy, a neurological disorder which makes it difficult for a person to move and maintain their balance, suffered from neglect due in part to his disability. Yan Cheng stayed behind in his village of Wuhan while his father and brother left for Lunar New Year’s celebrations. His father contracted COVID-19 shortly after.

The father informed a Wuhan charity for disabled people about his son and told them that Yan needs to be fed and assisted with changing his clothes daily. Unfortunately, Yan was only fed twice between January 24th to January 28th and died on January 29th.  The exact cause of Yan Cheng’s death has not been determined, but this is just one example of the barriers that P/CWDs face during a global health crisis.

The Disability Community

The World Bank and World Health Organization (WHO) state that P/CWDs account for 15% of the world’s population and 80% of them live in developing countries.  World Health Survey data from 51 countries revealed that people with disabilities were more than twice as likely to report finding health care provider skills inadequate to meet their needs, four times more likely to be treated badly and nearly three times more likely to be denied needed health care.

This research also finds that 100 million children have a disability and UNICEF’ has emphasized the specific considerations needed for children with disabilities. For example, girls and boys with disabilities may be at risk of exclusion from education if remote/distance learning programs are not accessible or they do not have assistive devices to allow participation and accommodate learning needs.

The importance of having an inclusive response to coronavirus towards C/PWDs is supported by Article 11 of the United Nation’s Convention of Rights for People with Disabilities (CRPD). Article 11  establishes that states will ensure the protection and safety of persons with disabilities in the national response to humanitarian emergencies. In addition to the CRPD, Article 2 of UN Convention of Rights of the Child, states that signatory countries respect that children within their jurisdiction, including those with a disability, do not suffer discrimination. It also calls for measures to ensure protection against negative attitudes, isolation, and stigmatization that may arise in the midst of a crisis such as the coronavirus.

Including Children with Disabilities During COVID-19

A briefing published by UNICEF on the considerations for PWDs includes recommendations that have been written by many disability-centered organizations such as the European Disability Forum and the World Federation of the Deaf (WFD). Recommendations from the European Disability Forum include:

  • Disabled People Organizations (DPOs) are the best placed to advise authorities on the specific requirements and most appropriate solutions on policies providing accessible and inclusive services. Similarly, children with disabilities are best placed to speak to their specific barriers, and should be proactively consulted.
  • All COVID-19 containment and mitigation activities must be planned and implemented with the active participation of persons with disabilities and DPOs. Children should not be left out of this process, child-friendly information and mechanisms should be included as part of these activities.
  • Involving women and girls with disabilities in all stages of responses and decision-making is critical. Girls with disabilities are especially vulnerable and hard to reach, so special efforts must be made to insure they are not left behind.

The World Federation of the Deaf focuses on how to engage with the deaf community, but their recommendations can be also incorporated for the general disability community:

  • National governments should work with deaf people through their representative organization – the national associations of the deaf – to ensure the provision of adequate information and safeguarding access to health and education services.
  • National governments, in partnership with the national associations of the deaf, must implement accessible emergency services for deaf children who are victim of physical, psychological and sexual abuse. This service must be accessible, ideally via direct communication, but also through SMS texting and via remote interpreting through Video Relay Services.
  • Governments at all levels, must undertake all possible measures to ensure deaf children and youth are protected from physical, psychological and sexual abuse and violence during the confinement period.

Recommendations from UNICEF’s Considerations for Children and Adults with Disabilities include:

  • Considering information channels that will be accessed by persons with disabilities. For example, as many children with disabilities are out of school, any information campaigns delivered through schools may not reach children with disabilities.
  • Provide support to education actors to ensure that distance learning platforms are safe and accessible to children with disabilities; teachers are trained on supporting children with disabilities remotely; and that any special education programs are included in measures to ensure continuity of education.
  • Women and girls with disabilities who experience disruption of essential services, restricted movements and have primary responsibility for caring for their families are at increased risk of gender-based violence (GBV). Ensure that any programs to prevent and respond to GBV are inclusive of women and girls with disabilities (e.g. ensuring that information and reporting channels are available in multiple and accessible formats).

For governments to uphold protections for P/CWDs during COVID-19 they should familiarize themselves and follow the recommendations provided by the disability centered organizations. The aim of these recommendations is to reduce the bad practices that have occurred since the beginning of the pandemic. These recommendations are made in the spirit of the disability rights movement saying, “nothing about us without us.”