What does poverty mean for disabled people in the era of COVID-19?

In my previous blog post I have discussed how COVID-19 gave us the opportunity to benefit from the local development approaches within lower and middle-income countries. These countries’ poverty, health, and other development challenges negatively affected the application of the human rights approach. As a consequence, civil community found itself in a position of establishing programmes and initiatives to compensate for the government’s failure to respond to minority groups’ rights. They have relied on Community Based Rehabilitation (CBR), the twin-track approach and other inclusive local development approaches to decrease disabled people’s social exclusion. The community initiatives and local disability action plans that they suggested managed to increase people with disability’s access to a variety of services.

In this blog post, I will argue that even with such progress, along with governments’ announced strategies in response to SDGs, people with disability will face further marginalization due to the influence of COVID-19 on economies. According to my informal discussions with some of my disabled activist colleagues, they are no longer satisfied with the benefits that they are receive from government, especially in the framework of the higher unemployment rate and the cessation of school meals which was the only channel of support from some families living in rural areas. This means that the economic consequences of COVID-19 expose the most vulnerable and excluded members of society, as has been the case with previous economic crises.  One reason for this is that COVID-19 will result in the prioritising of funds which may be at the expense of development programs designed to support the inclusion of people with disability.

My lived and working experience with government and DPOs in Egypt and other Arab countries reinforces for me the essential correlation between poverty and people with disability’s exclusion and deprivation to receive appropriate support at the district level. It is also behind the associated stigma within their communities. The lockdown and self-isolation strategies followed by some countries may cause an additional 8.3 million people to fall into poverty according to ESCWA, 2020. I feel that Adam Parsons’ argument in his April 10th  Counterpunch article about us “all be[ing] in this together” but experiences of lockdown having very different effects depending on “one’s position and place in society” is borne out from my own experience and that of those I have consulted. They are not able to receive their regular medical support as before and this is compounded by difficulties being supported by those close to them as fear of infection leads to barriers even in communication. The question – as Parsons himself says – is “will COVID-19 spur a people’s bailout for the world’s poorest?” Recent experience, including recent US withdrawal of WHO funding, suggests this may not be the case.

Economically speaking, and as a response to COVID-19, governments are offering benefits to support the most vulnerable groups including those who are unemployed and also the self-employed who are unable to work, although with variations. In the Global South, some governments have provided financial support but this has been viewed as minimal by those who are self-employed (I will come back to the subject of employment in my next blog post). As a consequence, many continue to go out to work despite the risks. Knowing that people with disability are the poorest of the poor and 80% of them live in the majority world exacerbates this challenge for the families with disabled individuals. In the UK, and similar to other European governments, it has been decided to provide an average of 80% of the monthly salary to compensate for those furloughed from their work (similar initiatives have been proposed for the self-employed). This has been largely met with satisfaction from the population. It is unclear, as of the current moment, as to how much of this financial support has been implemented. Regardless, such a programme will have an impact on contingency resources available for other purposes and will force NGOs to pick up the slack. The scary issue is that stopping the current benefits and social protection schemes to ameliorate the current difficulties may make the situation harder for people who have become dependent upon them. Despite the fact that COVID-19 is an important cause for poverty, permanent measures should be taken to eradicate the poverty itself beyond any specific pandemic. This needs to be considered as part of any exit strategy.

Beyond the exit strategy?

Since the start of the pandemic, there have been a variety of reports and other statistical information illustrating its economic, social, and health impact. Considerations, however, of potential exit strategies that will eradicate these effects going forward into the future, are yet to be fully developed. These may include redirection of funds, tweaking the current responses to the Sustainable Development Goals to eradicate the new challenges created by COVID-19, or – as ESCWA have recently suggested (April 2020) – “Enhancing social protection by extending the coverage of existing schemes, including cash transfers, food aid, unemployment benefits and paid sick leave protection, for an interim period of three to six months to support the poor and vulnerable”.

In conclusion, I am optimistic that the post COVID-19 era will witness more consideration to minority groups’ rights within development from international organisations. They may do this as a response to the lack of funding and priority that may be given to those groups from governments due to their focus on other economic and health demands.

For more information, see the ESCWA 2020 report at: https://reliefweb.int/report/bahrain/mitigating-impact-covid-19-poverty-and-food-insecurity-arab-region

Adam Parsons’ article is available at: https://www.counterpunch.org/2020/04/10/will-covid-19-spur-a-peoples-bailout-for-the-worlds-poorest/covid-19-4966155_1920

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

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Photo by Ju00c9SHOOTS on Pexels.com

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.

This is my story, let’s start

I am a disabled activist and researcher born in Egypt, who lived through many barriers and deprivations that face disabled people in accessing basic services. At my segregated boarding school for blind students in Egypt, I gained many experiences of independence and how I could think of many creative solutions to overcome both the educational and social challenges that I faced during my educational life. The blind education system at that time had many problems, for example lack of tactile mapping or audio descriptions of the physical word. As a result of this we were not allowed to study geometry, shapes etc.

Despite this, I managed to reach and complete my undergraduate studies at an Egyptian university (English Department), where neither assistive technology nor personal assistant schemes were part of the higher education system. As a result, blind and physically impaired students faced various barriers, and deaf students were not even allowed to join higher education. This is not even to mention our difficulty of being included in university life at a social level. It’s also worth mentioning that I was denied access to join the media and communications department and the Arabic Music Institute due to my impairments, despite being qualified for both of these. This was especially frustrating as I played keyboard in bands in Egypt from the age of 18 (a story that I would love to share in another blog post).

Starting in 2004 I worked in the field of disability for over ten years, joining the National Council for Childhood and Motherhood – both policy making organisations. Through various scholarships I was accepted to travel widely to continue my academic career (MA and PhD in Disability Studies) and to take part in academic conferences, fellowships and disability activism over the globe. My MA was the first time for me to travel outside of Egypt, an interesting and challenging experience as a blind person that I will definitely share in future. In 2011 I lived through the events and consequences of the Egyptian revolution, where we, disabled people, fought for inclusion by participating in marches and demonstrations. Immediately after the revolution, I was engaged in the creation of many national discourses e.g the Egyptian Constitution of 2014 and new Egyptian disability law. In addition to these, being a member of many global alliances of the disability movement assisted me to become more involved with disability challenges at the global level.

This also showed me the large gap between the barriers faced by disabled people in the Global South and Global North. The aim of this blog is for disabled people from both continents to share and debate these differences in barriers. This may help to structure a more unified global activism, merging different disability movements together and providing solutions towards more inclusivity and equality for disabled people. Although this blog is not purely academic, it will learn from the academic world, which I currently work in, and this may lead to further research and encourage scholars to consider disabling barriers across borders.

My story is indicative of many of the barriers that I have no doubt that other disabled people across the world, may have faced. The upcoming blog entries will contain a focus on each of these barriers, which will be enriched by your opinions and experiences.