There are one billion people with disabilities in the world, with more than three quarters living in low- and middle-income countries. Many of them were not able to access quality education, health or work without facing stigma and discrimination before the pandemic – and these issues only intensified when it broke.
People with disabilities are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19: not only is there an increased direct risk for people with existing health conditions, but they have also been marginalised and discriminated against when it comes to accessing information and healthcare.
At Sightsavers we have been working with people with disabilities to advocate for their rights and ensure they receive the treatment they need during this difficult time. And we will continue this work as we build back following the pandemic.
As we move to the recovery phase of COVID-19, health, education and other systems will have to be adapted to accommodate the new risks we face. Why not take the opportunity to build them back in a way that is inclusive?
As the slogan goes: building back inclusively is building back better. So how is Sightsavers building back inclusively in our work?
Disability discrimination is still a big problem affecting people with disabilities seeking employment. Through our programmes in inclusive employment, we have been working with governments and private sector employers to ensure that people with disabilities are included in back to work plans and have equal access to quality education, health and work opportunities. Disabled persons organisations (DPOs) have been at the centre of this work.
Our groundbreaking inclusion programme Inclusive Futures, which is funded by UK aid, has enabled us and a number of other partners to support jobseekers and entrepreneurs through COVID-19. We have done this by piloting inclusive business models, supporting micro-enterprises, running disability awareness training with employers and helping jobseekers develop their soft skills for the workplace.
Our Equal World campaign launched a petition to the United Nations and its member states to make sure the response to the COVID-19 pandemic is inclusive of people with disabilities. This work will continue beyond the pandemic to champion the need for accessible employment for all and to leave no one behind.
There is real concern that people with disabilities are being left out of health services and we will be working hard to advocate for the rights of people with disabilities throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond. Our UK aid-funded DID programme has been incorporating inclusive health into the COVID-19 rapid response to ensure that patients with disabilities have access to treatment. We will be conducting accessibility audits of health facilities and working with local staff on disability inclusion.
Great progress has been made in inclusive health, including eye health, in recent years and it’s vital this continues. We will be restarting our eye health work in the safest way possible, while making sure that it is accessible to everyone. To be able to achieve this we need to collect more evidence about health inequalities and make sure this is presented to governments and included in national health plans. In the long-term, we will focus on providing access to quality eye health services for all by advocating for universal health coverage, providing appropriate levels of care closer to communities, and challenging stigma and discrimination against patients with disabilities by training health workers on disability inclusion.
Education is a vital tool for investing in a child’s future, and children with disabilities need to be provided with equal opportunities to learn alongside their peers. As the pandemic resulted in global school closures, countries started providing distance learning – but often this was not accessible to students with disabilities. And as schools start to reopen, many of these children are at risk of not returning.
Sightsavers has been working with partners and ministries of education across Africa and Asia, developing strategies to minimise the impact of children with disabilities missing out on learning opportunities, both in and out of school. This has included strengthening the inclusion of these children in home-based education solutions, providing training on inclusive education and ensuring educational resources are accessible for people with disabilities.
We will continue to work with DPOs, caregivers and community groups to ensure that the interventions are sustainable and appropriate to local contexts.