Does COVID-19 impede inclusive development – where is the human rights approach?

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I am a disabled person from Egypt, currently residing in the UK. The present barriers that face disabled people, no matter where they are, due to COVID-19 remind me of my own difficulties in accessing education, health, and other basic services. The challenges I faced were due to the absence of equal access to services and reasonable accommodations. This social exclusion is caused by poverty, malnutrition, health and other challenges to development which positioned minority groups’ rights, including disabled people, at the far end of the political agenda in the Global South. This is reminiscent of the way in which governments in the UK and other countries are treating disabled people’s demands within the current COVID-19 era. Disabled people’s needs have not decreased during this period but have rather been elevated due to demands such as social distancing and self-isolation. In addition, the requirement to access benefits/support online raises the issue of inaccessibility particularly where personal assistant support can only be provided remotely. Despite living with my family, this situation has reduced the number of services I can access, sometimes due to people’s perhaps understandable reticence to engage with me as a disabled person – although this also seems to include guiding via speech whilst engaging in necessary physical distancing.

Economically speaking, disabled people face similar challenges to others but some are more profound. Moving welfare mechanisms online has resulted in disabled people lacking access to Statutory Sick Pay, Job Centre appointments and procedures to apply for benefits. Personally, as this period of time followed the completion of my PhD, I found that recruitment processes with professional and academic employers are either closed or delayed/deferred, with interviews held online. This restriction on opportunity negatively impacts on my own prospects and this has also been reported elsewhere (e.g. by the ILO in their consideration of COVID-19 and the world of work – https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/@dgreports/@dcomm/documents/briefingnote/wcms_740877.pdf).

To give disabled people equitable economic, social and health support, despite COVID-19, organisations do not need to reinvent the wheel. Their policies and development projects should be informed by approaches followed by the Global South to recognise the rights of disabled people. My lived consultancy experience in the Global South countries strongly suggests that Inclusive Local Development approaches including Community-Based Rehabilitation and the ‘twin-track’ approach, which have proven success through the implementation of projects and initiatives, could be one solution to revitalising the human rights approach. This is of particular importance at a time when Disability Rights UK (https://www.disabilityrightsuk.org/news/2020/april/covid-19-and-rights-disabled-people), on whose board I sit, have expressed their concerns that the rights of the disabled as set out in multiple conventions and acts are being sidelined through the current practices resulting from the COVID-19 crisis. As they report, “NHS staff normally use these laws to help make decisions about people’s treatment”. With resources limited by the sheer number of patients requiring treatment, the selection criteria has tightened and become harsher as a result. Looking at similar situations in the Global South over history finds that NGOs in cooperation with some governments have compensated for such limitations. Egyptian DPOs, for example, conducted initiatives at the local level either to improve the level of public service accessibility or to enhance the capacity of school staff in order to provide them with simple resources to be able to include disabled children. These concepts could be utilised according to each country’s resources, demands and geographical distribution of government services.

International organisations’ efforts up to the present relied on the human rights approach as a protection scheme to advocate for the equalisation of disabled people’s support. They needed to ensure that disabled people were satisfied with and benefited from the government’s available sources calling for rapid solutions. As the Chair of Leeds Disabled People’s Organisation and despite our limited capacity, we have decided to inform disabled people of all the available sources of support – through this, we became aware of their dissatisfaction with how the government is dealing with their economic and social demands. Working as a consultant to provide equality and inclusivity of their strategy in relation to disabled people found that, although some countries have a long history with disease impacting upon the population, their civil community in cooperation with government managed to use the available resources to mainstream disabled people in accessing public services. One of the lessons learned is that the current pandemic should not undermine the efforts taken by governments to rapidly progress the concept of inclusive development prior to this crisis.

Despite the international organisations’ efforts to eradicate the discrimination and marginalisation faced by disabled people during the COVID-19 era, it is hoped that this will not be at the expense of the already designed and funded inclusive development projects to support disabled people’s other affairs. Their efforts, however, have managed to raise some key challenges and struggles from local to national level and beyond. I have benefited from this myself through sharing my experience in webinars and other participatory platforms. Organisations such as EDF, for example, ensured that disabled people’s voices are expressed during the formulation of their plans. Like other organisations, they are presently updating resources in response to developments (http://www.edf-feph.org/newsroom/news/covid-19-resource-page).

I am happy for people to discuss this blog post and will be following up with further posts in the near future. I am also happy to organise webinars for further discussion. All opinions and feedback gratefully received.

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