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In Their Own Words: COVID-19 Update on Displaced Persons with Disabilities

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As every country around the world navigates unprecedented restrictions as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Women’s Refugee Commission (WRC) is working directly with humanitarian partners on the front lines during this crisis to advance research-based advocacy. Critical to that is hearing from our partners about how the pandemic is affecting the lives of displaced women, children, and youth. To date, organizations and individuals from across four continents have responded.

Here’s what we know so far about displaced persons with disabilities

Of the nearly 80 million people who are displaced worldwide, approximately 12 million are people with disabilities. Refugee women, children, and youth with disabilities are often excluded from vital services such as health care and education, economic opportunities, and programs that address gender-based violence. As we heard recently from our partners in Uganda, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, the COVID pandemic has exacerbated many of these issues.

Partners noted concerns about lack of access to services and information for persons with disabilities as a result of the pandemic. Specifically, in-home and personal assistant services have largely stopped due to lockdowns and hospital and clinic closures. This means that critical life needs—such as being able to use the toilet or moving around one’s own home—are hindered.

Persons with disabilities who relied on regular health care visits for their well-being have seen those halted. Items such as soap—key to preventing COVID-19—food, and other necessities are not making their way to persons with disabilities.

Public health information regarding preventing COVID was not found to be available in accessible formats, while hygiene kits and water, sanitation, and health care facilities have been inaccessible for many persons with disabilities. Social distancing and isolation are unfeasible for some persons with disabilities who depend upon personal assistant services—where those remain available at all.

Partners also noted increased concern about gender-related violence during the pandemic, with persons with disabilities already facing increased risk of violence. “Women with disabilities are at greater risk because they are marginalized and face greater societal and institutional barriers,” said the Special Talent Exchange Program (STEP) in Pakistan.

Educational and economic opportunities have been curtailed and many livelihood programs have been canceled altogether, leaving persons with disabilities unable to earn a living. There is also concern about a failure to prioritize disability inclusion in the COVID humanitarian response, based on previous pandemic responses.