- June 2, 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.


Patricia Matias is an indigenous woman from a Zapotec community in the State of Oaxaca, Mexico. In an interview with the International Disability Alliance, she told us about additional and inter-sectional barriers indigenous persons with disabilities including women face in Mexico during the pandemic.

Patricia acquired a physical disability when she was two years old due to poliomyelitis. However, when she grew older, she left her Zapotec community because it didn’t have the appropriate infrastructure to cover her needs for an independent life. Therefore, she moved to another town in Oaxaca to go to school and receive training for her daily life. 

Patricia is a well-known activist for indigenous with disabilities rights. Fifteen years ago she started working with a local NGO that works disability and indigenous rights called Piña Palmera, “When I arrived at Piña Palmera I understood that much more needs to be done to realize empowerment and to understand the disability from a social perspective” she explains.

In theOPD Patricia works, persons with disabilities who are already empowered support other indigenous persons with disabilities in their processes of learning how to live independently: “I think, what I liked the most about joining this OPD is that I started controlling and owing my life; my family stopped being the protagonist of my life. As a person with a disability, I was used to people asking my relatives about my needs, and not addressing the questions to me. I liked that this has now been changed” she adds.

Patricia supports women who have been subject to violence and abandonment; she works with other human rights activists such as the National Network of female Human Rights Defenders to ensure legal aid for these women. 

She expresses that, as an indigenous person with a disability, she was used to be invisible. “You know, in the indigenous communities there is still a belief that disability is a punishment from God, and that’s why families hide their relatives with disabilities. However, we are trying to make a shift to that by occupying public spaces within our communities to do our collective activities. We want to be seen, not hidden. We don’t want to be invisible”. She also expresses that as a result of their activities, situation for indigenous persons with disabilities has improved. 

During the COVID 19 crisis, Patricia and the OPD she works with have been supporting families and persons with disabilities by visiting those who require high support in their own homes to address their needs. Upon the outbreak of the pandemic, the indigenous communities organized themselves and restricted traveling into their communities to prevent spread of the virus. “The government is doing nothing to address indigenous communities. Much less than what it does to consider persons with disabilities” says Patricia. 

Unlike many other countries, Mexico is not addressing the economic needs of the population during the COVID 19 crisis. The government is providing almost no economic relief measures to save the economy during the isolation measures. The isolation measures are not mandatory because almost half of the Mexican population is engaged in the informal labor market, with no social security, which makes it impossible to send people home. In Mexico, the lockdown and social distancing measures are a privilege that not all people can afford. The latter has been reflected in the increasing number of cases that have been confirmed in the last two weeks. By May 24th, Mexico reached almost 70 000 confirmed cases and has one of the most severe death rates in the world: approximately 7400 persons have died due to the pandemic. 

Although the government has adopted the strategy of daily briefings about the situation, Patricia asserts that the information is not reaching the indigenous communities. Although the Mexican government has provided sign language interpretation during the daily reports, the needs of indigenous communities are very different. 

“There is only one spot in Zapotec language, and that spot is very disconnected from the needs of indigenous with disabilities and even indigenous people alone. Each region has its own indigenous language, and the government is not even providing accessible information for all of them”.

The way in which the cities are living the COVID 19 crisis is very different from the experience of indigenous communities. “There are no programs to include indigenous communities in the emergency response, Oaxaca is a very big state and it has a lot of different municipalities, as well as many different indigenous communities. We are on the coast. The authorities are giving food to people, but they are not supporting persons with disabilities who don’t have access to medicines, diapers, catheters, or other special goods. There are no resources for indigenous persons with disabilities”. 

Another major challenge for indigenous communities is the lack of transportation, which exacerbates the isolation of indigenous persons with disabilities. The pandemic has hit hard the availability of transportation for these communities. “There are few transportation services and they are very expensive for us. Especially indigenous persons with disabilities need to travel to get specialized supplies. Therefore, the community has organized itself to provide the population of the communities with what they need. For instance, we have been delivering goods and medical supplies to persons with disabilities. We work with families to arrange everything: we coordinate with persons in the communities who have vehicles to reach persons with disabilities in our communities. 

According to Patricia, before the COVID 19 crisis there were already challenges for indigenous persons with disabilities. The lack of hospitals in indigenous communities is already problematic. Furthermore, the few health centers available for these communities aren’t accessible at all. 

“Last time I was in a hospital, there was no accessibility in the building, there weren’t even accessible bathrooms.” She explains.  

This situation worsens due to the lack of sensitivity and training of healthcare workers.

“Health staff is not trained to address the needs of persons with disabilities. Doctors and nurses don’t see us as women because we have a disability. We basically have no access to sexual and reproductive health services” says  Patricia.  

According to Patricia, there is a need for more adaptations and accessibility measures for indigenous persons with disabilities. As Oaxaca is very big and diverse, Patricia reflects that since indigenous people with disabilities are completely invisible, the situation for them in other communities might be worse than hers. 

So far, Patricia knows that there is one indigenous community that has been hit by COVID 19, but there is no further information available on the situation there.

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