Focusing on women with disabilities
The Covid-19 pandemic has sharpened the focus on the vulnerabilities faced by many sections of the population, especially women. But among these groups, women living with disabilities — there are 11.8 million in India — face a particularly challenging situation. Two civil society organisations, Rising Flame and Sightsavers, undertook a study of women with disabilities during the pandemic and found that those with sight and hearing impairments faced serious obstacles to accessing information, education, food and other basic amenities not to mention psychological support.
Many with sight disabilities were not able to access the Aarogya Setu app as it does not factor in their requirements. Those with locomotor disabilities were not able to visit stores to access food and the virus acted as an impediment to getting delivery of essential services. Many payment apps are not accessible to the visually challenged and many online courses too are not tailored to their needs.
While work from home could be to the advantage of women with disabilities, there are several challenges in being able to access video calls and voice calls and, of course, there is lack of connectivity in many areas. The pandemic has also curtailed the possibilities of many disabled women being able to get physical and psychological support. Social distancing and fear of the virus has led to many of them losing whatever little physical support they had in the form of attendants.
Government schemes, which have been a lifeline for so many women in these trying times, must be responsive to the needs of women with disabilities. For a start, the government could use its robust grassroots systems with its health workers to create awareness in families about the need to not compromise on health and education for women with disabilities.
Skill development, one of the flagship programmes of the government, should include courses and training specifically for women who are disabled in consultation with them. Some of these women should be inducted into local decision-making bodies so that they can participate in processes, which build their skills.
In India, many women in general and those with disabilities in particular have to face poverty, poor health conditions, little or no income, lower education levels and isolation. With resources being scarce, women usually get the short end of the stick, more so if they suffer from some form of disability. Trapped at home, they are also vulnerable to abuse and face barriers in being able to register a complaint with the police or bring this to the notice of a civil society organisation. In many cases, fearing abandonment or further isolation, they chose to keep quiet.
The government and non-governmental organisations can intervene to help. One, set up a functioning telephone network, accessible to women with disabilities so that they can convey their needs to a relevant person in the local governance system. Two, create a database of those with disabilities and their medical needs. A noteworthy effort is a video made with relevant information by the office of the Commissioner for Disabilities.
Women with disabilities have been on the margins for far too long. The pandemic has been particularly cruel to them but also offers an opportunity to enable them to become more independent and productive if the government makes a concerted effort.
The views expressed are personal