- July 6, 2020

This is one story as part of the Voices of People with Disabilities during COVID19 Outbreak series

Names may have been changed to protect the individuals mentioned in the story.

COVID-19 was confirmed to have reached Pakistan on 26 February 2020. As of 16 June 2020, there have been about 148,900 confirmed cases with 56,400 recoveries and 2,840 deaths in the country. Punjab has recorded the most cases and has also reported the most deaths in the country, a total of 1,081[1].

The story of Fahad: a man with a physical disability unable to access  personal assistance services

Fahad is a man with a physical disability in his early 30s. He is a wheelchair user living in an urban area. He works at a hospital in the rehabilitation unit of youngsters with disabilities. However, all  rehabilitation units have been closed down forcing him to stop working. “I am the eldest of siblings. In our social system, the elder of the house has the responsibility to support everyone. I spent all my savings to meet the needs of myself and my family during COVID-19”, he says. As many people lose their jobs, securing an income has become extremely difficult, as well as securing basic products. “People with disabilities who used to earn some money by working for themselves and can’t continue doing so are seen as a burden on the national economy”, he says.

Employment opportunities for people with disabilities is currently extremely limited and in many cases, non-existent. “People with disabilities who were working somewhere or running their own small business lost everything because of COVID19”, he says.

Personal assistance services are currently unavailable and extremely scare due to COVID-19 and social distancing. “People with high complex needs in Pakistan who carry out their daily activities with the help of personal assistants are more affected. I also often have this problem especially when I have to shift from my car to a wheelchair”, says Fahad. Also, social distancing makes it difficult to obtain assistance from other persons.  Parents of children with disabilities have no guidance on how provide assistance to their children during COVID-19, to avoid contagion for example, especially now that the services of personal assistants is not available. Moreover, schools in Pakistan are still closed: “There are no accessibility measures in place for children with disabilities to continue their education remotely”, he says.

According to Fahad, people with disabilities living in Pakistan mostly come from poor families which makes them more isolated. Fahad understands that persons with disabilities living in poverty are more vulnerable to COVID-19 and has decided to deliver food to such people. Together with the help of his friends, he has been able to reach the family of 500 persons with disabilities to avoid starvation. Fahad highlights that the transgender community in Pakistan are facing many barriers during the lockdown due to the attitudinal barriers and discrimination. “We have provided food to them but it is not an easy task”, he says.

What is the situation like for persons with a psychosocial disability?

Waqar Puri is a representative of Psychosocial Disability Rights Network in Pakistan and is a man with a psychosocial disability. “It has been difficult to stay in isolation because I am unable to do my regular exercise and have a social life. There are many distraction and noises at home. It is very distressing”, he says.

Waqar explains that in Pakistan, as in many cultures and countries, persons with psychosocial disabilities are perceived as individuals unable to make decisions, who must live in isolation and be highly medicated. “Many of us are not allowed to interact with other family members because of shame or fear of doing or saying something that is not appropriate”, he says. This means that persons with psychosocial disabilities have less decision making power in issues that concern them, and also face barriers in accessing medical attention. “Our issues are not seen as important or perceived as an exaggeration, meaning our health is not treated as a priority”, he says.

Waqar also mentions the worrying situation of persons with disabilities who are institutionalized: “They are at a greater risk to get infected as there are no safety measures and lack of awareness and information”, he says. Many are locked indoors with no access to information, meaning they can easily get infected if they do not have information on how to prevent contagion, which can lead to death.

Waqar is worried about people not taking COVID-19 seriously, as they continue living a normal life. “You can see people outdoors, socializing and going shopping. Only if a family member is infected, that is when they realise how serious the situation is”, he says.

In the case of people with disabilities, many are experiencing increased levels of depression and anxiety because of isolation. Also, many live in very small homes, with many family members and no personal space. “We are unable to access personal support and reasonable accommodation in our homes because of social distancing”, he says. Also, as Fahad mentions, other services which were available before the lockdown (such as support services, personal assistants, etc) are unavailable, meaning that maintaining daily routines (hygiene, work, purchasing grocery items) is almost impossible.

Barriers in accessing information

Many persons with disabilities do not have access to information related to health recommendations. Information in braille, sign language, easy to read is unavailable and websites are inaccessible. Another issue to communication is language barriers, as there are no translated materials into local languages. Many are unable to understand English, meaning the information they can access is limited. Also, illiteracy levels are high in Pakistan among persons with disabilities, and many would require easy to read formats, info graphics and videos, amongst others.

Barriers in accessing social protection

Persons with disabilities do not have access to social protection and relief programs as their needs are not prioritized. There is an absence of consultation with DPO members on how contingency plans can be developed and approached.

Moreover, persons with disabilities with limited resources often require access to food, cash, hygiene kits and assistance provided by the government. However, they are unable to register themselves in online portals because they are not accessible and user friendly, especially for screen reader users. Also, many do not have internet connection. “How can they register? Portal missions are not in easy to read formats either”, he says. DPOs offer their assistance in this matter and sometimes there are successful. “When a person with disability obtains cash or income support, they are unable to receive it because many do not have a bank accounts” he says.

Working and studying from home

As to working from home, employers with disabilities are not given training or a guide on how to use digital platforms, or IT devices. “What happens to those in difficult economic conditions who have poor internet connection, live in a small home or do not own devices?”, he wonders.

For Waqar, advocating for the rights of persons with disabilities is becoming increasingly difficult. “It’s difficult to obtain feedback. As we are unable to access offices physically due to the lockdown, we have no communications with officials as they don’t reply to phone calls, letters nor emails”, he says.

As for online educational platforms, persons with disabilities who want to access this information are unable to carry on studying at university levels, especially in the government funded schools as online systems are inaccessible.

Increased gender based violence

Women with disabilities experience increased domestic violence and have issues accessing basic products, such as menstrual pads. Women cannot go out by themselves and they have to ask somebody to bring them. “Violence even by family members is increasing, and women with psychosocial disabilities face more challenges”, he says.