Building back inclusively after COVID-19

Imran Khan, July 2020
Three social inclusion participants are in a line smiling at the camera.

COVID-19 has shown the need for stronger and more inclusive health, employment and educational systems across the world. As we move towards a phase of recovery from the pandemic, this is more important than ever.

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 inclusion

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.

A young group of visually impaired Judo players laughing in Sightsavers' tracksuits.

Join our campaign

Our Equal World campaign fights for the rights of people with disabilities.

More on the campaign
People sitting, looking at a piece of paper.
Young job seekers in Nairobi discuss their experiences of finding work, as part of an Inclusive Futures workshop. ©Sightsavers/Patrick Meinhardt


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.

Diokoura standing with the trachoma surgeon, Modibo Sanogo, in Mali.

Inclusive health

Sightsavers promotes inclusive health because we believe that everyone, wherever they live, should be able to receive quality, affordable health care.

More on our health work
A man standing smiling, next to a Sightsavers' sign in Bangla.
In Bangladesh, Mr Karim works with Sightsavers to make sure people with disabilities can access the eye care they need. ©Sightsavers


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.

Two boys laughing outside.

Inclusive education

Sightsavers works with local and national partners to promote inclusive, quality education, giving all children the chance to go to school.

More on education
A man riding a bike with a small child behind him in a seat.
Volunteer teacher Materson uses a specially adapted bicycle to take Theresa, who has a disability, to her pre-school in Malawi.

Neglected tropical diseases (NTDs)

As we continue  to work through the crisis, there are opportunities to restart work on NTDs in a new, safe way and to make more strides in including people with disabilities in elimination and patient care. NTDs not only cause debilitation and disability, but people with disabilities are at higher risk of being left behind.

The UK aid-funded Ascend West and Central Africa programme, which is led by Sightsavers in a consortium, is being adapted in many of the countries where we work to support the COVID-19 response – for instance targeting behaviour change messaging around hand hygiene, social distancing and wearing masks. Within this we have been ensuring that people with disabilities are not left behind in relief efforts. The programme as a whole is also aiming to include people with disabilities in its design, delivery and evaluation.

These adaptions will not only support recovery around COVID-19, but also strengthen the work we do. This is a global pandemic which needs a global response and we are all stronger working together.

“Building back inclusively is building back better”


Imran Khan smiling. Imran Khan is Sightsavers’ chief global technical lead. 

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