Sixteen-year-old Yan Cheng was a resident of Hubei in China. Living with an extreme form of cerebral palsy, Yan Cheng could not move his body, speak or look after himself. His father was his sole carer. In mid-January, he was left stranded at his home as his father showed symptoms of Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus and was put in a quarantine facility. Over the next week, he was fed only two meals despite an appeal by his father on the local social media platform Weibo. He died, home alone.
Coronavirus has resulted in thousands of casualties over the last three months. However, if there is one case that has given me angst and sleepless nights, it is of Yan Cheng, a boy who died due to coronavirus without ever being struck by it.
Newspapers, news websites, TV channels and social media have been filled with nothing much except for coronavirus over the last few weeks as it has tragically gone global. However, not much has been spoken about its impact on Persons with Disabilities and the fears they face post the onslaught of the virus. In fact, the only mention of disability are the sly social media tweets about how the disabled were always right in propagating “work from home” once new age companies that had the luxury to offer it announced it.
What is not been talked about is how Persons with Disabilities are more susceptible to viruses like the coronavirus than others. Let’s start with the biggest “DO” to avoid Coronavirus, regularly washing your hands. Well, many Persons with Disabilities like myself cannot independently wash our hands without getting into physical contact with our attendants and/or caretakers as we are physically incapable of it. Besides, it is much tougher to regularly wash our hands in public due to the lack of toilets for Persons with Disabilities.
Next, we are told to practice “social distancing” and “social isolation”. For a person with a physical disability like me, distancing is impossible due to the dependence on others to fulfill physiological requirements. It is equally unreasonable to expect a person with an intellectual disability to cope in isolation of their guardian. For many, it could even mean regular visits to hospitals and rehabilitation centers for various kinds of time bound therapies that just cannot stop due to a virus.
To make matters worse, many disabilities result in individuals being at higher risk in case they get coronavirus. For example, its common for those with spinal cord injuries to have compromised pulmonary functions or those with muscular dystrophy to have lower diaphragm function leading to lung problems making them particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus.
Problems of accessibility
Challenges of accessibility invariably go hand in hand with disability. It’s no different in the era of coronavirus. While the world is facing an information overload on the virus, the deaf are facing a severe lack of content in Indian Sign Language with the Kerala chief minister’s office being the only government agency that has released some sort of notification on it. Government websites are not accessible to the blind as they do not follow the W3CAG standards, the health ministry included.
Quarantine centers have come in for criticism for not having lifts, leave alone the nuance of thinking about accessible toilets and other disabled friendly features. Accessibility would not only help Persons with Disabilities but the elderly too who have been globally recognised as the most vulnerable victims of this virus. We also need to think through policies to ensure Persons with Disability are given basic facilities in case their primary care giver is quarantined.
As the world faces the “once in a century” pandemic, as Bill Gates put it, India has been lucky to be behind the curve on timelines of being hit. I do hope over the next two weeks through cautious accessible policies, India sets an example for the rest of the world on how to protect Persons with Disabilities in the time of a crisis.
Nipun Malhotra is CEO, Nipman Foundation and Founder, Wheels For Life. His Twitter handle is @nipunmalhotra.