COVID-19 and the Disabled Community

by Emily Shahira and Farhira Farudin

Self-isolation during the time of the pandemic is definitely a stress-inducing and difficult time for everyone. Our efforts in adapting to a new normal might stagger from one day to another, in hopes that this will all go back to normalcy someday. For disabled communities, social distancing might prove to be even more challenging. Have we considered if our social distancing practices are inclusive enough for the disabled communities? What does a new normal mean for people with disabilities? 

Living with disability means having to endure exacerbated daily activities where you are bound to receive less access to health services when your needs are greater or differ largely from others. People in institutionalised care such as homes or centres are kept in isolation in larger groups of people which leave them to be more vulnerable and in need of additional support.

Up to 80% of disabled communities live in low-income and middle-income countries1, if anything this further emphasises the ways in which social distancing practices for disabled communities are more suffocating than your average able-bodied stay at home scenarios. Living through a global scale pandemic is an unprecedented feat for many of us. So, it’s crucial for us to acknowledge how disabled communities are more likely to be affected in surged morbidity and mortality and how inclusivity helps the communities at a larger scale.

COVID-19 has undoubtedly inflamed the weakening state of our economy. In a time where more people are jobless now than ever– our unemployment rate is at 3.9%, the highest since a decade2— and employers are hustling to keep their companies afloat, non-profit organizations for the disabled feel smothered by financial burden during the outbreak3. Although there are budget cuts and less and less support from individual sectors considering that no fundraising events are allowed to happen, the NGO, Handicapped and Mentally Disabled Children Association Johor Bahru, still does their part in supporting other marginalised communities. They believe in focusing on everyone during this tough period of time. Any extra stock of goods for the association is given out to support low-income families, migrants as well as single parents.

So how do you respond to a sudden state of a global pandemic when you’re running a charity home for disabled children? Mr. Jeevah, the vice president of the Handicapped and Mentally Disabled Children Association Johor Bahru has brought to light that visitation to the students has been disrupted due to the Movement Control Order (MCO) ruling ordered by the Malaysian government. No family members are allowed to visit their children for health reasons. He notes that there are less caregivers available to tend to the children at this time but the children and caregivers of the association are doing their best to cope with the current situation and are practicing good sanitation and encouraging the use of masks and proper handwashing. 

Ableism, racism and classism that exists and remain fervent during this pandemic creates a tougher environment to thrive in for the marginalised. The existing disparities within the inclusivity of social distancing practices promoted by our government are only further aggravated by ableism. There are people committing this offense blatantly. People are nonchalantly speaking of how the world is facing this difficult time together and implying that our struggles are all the same while ignoring all the nuances that make us inherently different. 

News outlets especially in the initial stages of the outbreak, were comforting the public on how only the elderly and people with abiding medical conditions were susceptible to COVID-19. This only pushes the notion that vulnerable communities are disposable casualties4— and thus, disabled inclusivity within a world where able-bodied people are still the sole representation of how the world copes with the pandemic is needed now more than ever. At times like this, it is sobering to hear about these communities akin to Mr Jeevah’s supporting each other when basic resources would be difficult to sustain. 

Our social distancing practices shouldn’t be as hard for us to follow, and it certainly shouldn’t be any less thoughtful for people with disability. In a 14-page document released by World Health Organization (WHO)5, the organisation states that social distancing for the disabled requires attentiveness and more effort especially for governments to ensure that this pandemic is less stigmatic to the disabled communities in comparison to what they are used to.

In Spain, disabled communities are given a special facility to isolate themselves in. People with disability and their caregivers are also provided with protective equipment by The Czech National Disability Council. Disabled communities in India will receive one-off Rs 1,000 over the next three months6.

The world is still on its trajectory to be fully prepared for the COVID-19 outbreak and disabled communities, now more than ever, need the crisis preparation they deserve. This is a call for us to make bigger space for the disabled community by being more inclusive of their struggles and understanding that the ‘new normal’ rhetoric during this pandemic is vastly different for people with different backgrounds.

Any form of assistance to reduce the barriers faced by the disabled communities should be welcome and encouraged – even a simple thread on Twitter meant to help those in need during the MCO such as the one initiated by critically-acclaimed author, Hanna Alkaf, has the power to lead to an important movement that is able to engage a whole nation7.

#KitaJagaKita started as an initiative that stemmed from the frustration of being burnt out from the world’s current tragedy. Until today, the movement has listed up to 140 NGOs that need help or do their part to give back during the MCO, including NGOs that aim to empower disabled communities and provide them with opportunities that are equal to their able-bodied counterparts. We wanted to bring some organisations to your attention that are calling for contributions.

  1. Handicapped and Mentally Disabled Children Association Johor Bahru – 07-598 9676
  2. Pertubuhan Pembangunan Orang Buta Malaysia (PPOBM)03-2274 1212 (CIMB BANK 8009 3282 32)
  3. St. Nicholas’ Home, Penang – 04-229 0800 (CIMB BANK 8003960785)
  4. Malaysian Association for the Blind – 03-2272 2677 Malaysian Association for the Blind (Maybank 514057637836)

Note: Our disabled friends do not exclusively live in group homes and facilities. Although parts of our article focuses on the organisations that run such care homes, the reader should know this is not the case for all disabled persons. There is no one-size-fits-all description for disabled persons and it is important to remember that!

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