Five years ago, more than 200 states, UN bodies, civil society organisations and others signed the Humanitarian Disability Charter, pledging to include people with disabilities in humanitarian action. Two years ago, many of the same actors took one step further, by making tangible commitments to improve the lives of people with disabilities, including at times of crisis, at the world’s first Global Disability Summit, co-hosted by the UK, Kenya and the International Disability Alliance. This was a landmark moment for people with disabilities. It was a landmark moment for me too; I’ve been an ally of the disability movement for 20 years now, and this felt like a real turning point.
Today, with COVID-19 we are faced with the biggest humanitarian crisis of our time. In fact, it’s not one crisis; it’s dozens of crises, being played out differently in almost every country around the world. Today is our biggest test. Was it just words back in 2015 and 2018? Or, did we actually mean what we said? Will we make good on our commitments when people with disabilities need us most?
People with disabilities are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19
The other day, a colleague told me the story of Asha, a young girl we support in Nepal. Asha is 15 years old and has multiple disabilities. She has relied on her parents and her 3 sisters to take care of her for as long as she can remember. Her father is a daily labourer and used to travel to India to work, today he’s no longer able to do that because of the lockdown, and their sole income source has dried up. Even when he was working, they were only able to afford 2 meals a day so there were absolutely no possibility for them to stockpile essential items and food before the lockdown.
Today Asha’s family has no income, no savings and very little food to survive. They have been able to borrow from their neighbours and they’ve had a little bit of support from the local government. But it’s only going to last a few weeks and they know that the local government is struggling to provide enough support to all the families in need in their area. They are so worried about what is going to happen to them.
Asha’s tragic story is one example among thousands we’re hearing every day. In Nepal, of the 700 people with disabilities we recently surveyed, three-quarters reported a loss in family income. The decrease of income is something we are hearing from many of the people we support around the world. People are unable to work because of the lockdown, food prices are increasing, and social safety nets (where they exist) are struggling to meet the needs. The coping mechanisms we are hearing from the people we support are dramatic. Some people are reducing the number of meals they eat in a day or they are reducing the size of their meals in order to make the food last longer.
Globally, around 15% of people live with a disability, and this proportion increases dramatically in a conflict. In Syria, 27% of the population lives with a disability, and almost every single individual that is over the age of 65 also has a disability. However, worldwide, three in four people with disabilities feel excluded from humanitarian response according to our 2015 report. And, at the same time, many people with disabilities are older or live with underlying health conditions, which puts them at higher risk of being impacted by COVID-19.
It is now more than ever that we need to overcome the exclusion of people with disabilities.
The mental health impact of isolation on people with disabilities
Today in the UK, we’re living under a COVID-19 lockdown. We are all feeling the impact of being at home and not being able to go out as we like, not being able to socialise, not being able to go down to the pub or meet our families. Most of us will be experiencing a feeling of isolation and we can all recognise that the mental health impact of this crisis is going to be really significant on many of us.
This sense of isolation was already a daily challenge for many people with disabilities in the countries where we work, isolated and excluded because of stigma and the inaccessibility of most places around them. The mental health impacts are also real – in Nepal, one in three people with disabilities we surveyed reported a mental health impact like increasing anxiety or hopelessness.
The UK needs to ensure that people with disabilities are not left behind
The UK government’s Department for International Development has been paving the way for the inclusion of people with disabilities, co-hosting the Global Disability Summit, setting a strong strategy for disability inclusion and developing minimum standards for inclusion to be upheld across everything they fund. The UK has been a role model for the rest of the world, and now is the time for the UK to put these words into action.
So as we face the biggest humanitarian crisis of our time, will we make good on our promises? Will we ensure people with disabilities are not left behind? Or will we sit back and let history repeat itself?
Now is the time to turn words into action, and show every single person with disability, no matter where they are in the world, that they matter.
Aleema Shivji, Executive Director, Humanity & Inclusion UK
Humanity & Inclusion’s work on COVID-19
In response to COVID-19, all our colleagues in the field are doing incredible work to keep on supporting the most vulnerable people. Our teams have been sharing COVID-19 prevention messages and making sure they are accessible. In India for example, we have translated the Ministry of Health’s COVID-19 messages into the four main sign languages of the country. And in countries around the world, our network of partners is making masks, soap and other essential items which we are distributing, our community workers are being trained to identify COVID-19, our ambulances are on offer to transport patients, and we are providing mental health and psychosocial support.