An international update on persons with disabilities in the COVID-19 crisis

30 September 2020

Hey all,

Welcome back, and I hope you're well. Thanks for your patience on this update, and it's a long one. So long in fact, this newsletter platform wouldn't let me put all the links in one email.

This email is the summary. See these links for the full collection: as a pdf file, or as a word document.

This newsletter is an update on disability news around the world relating to the COVID-19 crisis, from late April to the end of September 2020. It's a snapshot of news, statistics, policy, and experiences of persons with disabilities around the world in the upheavals of this year. I'm sorry to say that it has a lot of bad news, but we draw heart from the many ways that people have responded, and these are featured too.

You can see previous updates on the pandemic and its results from April, and those from 26 March and 18 March. If you love disability news that isn't to do with COVID-19, see the June update.

Disability Debrief is made by me, Peter Torres Fremlin, a freelance consultant. This edition is produced with support from Center for Inclusive Policy.

Where we are now

Persons with disabilities across the world came into the COVID-19 crisis already marginalised. While governments have in recent years, made more ambitious commitments on disability, these had not been realised. The situation of existing marginalisation and limited government support have been made even worse in the past few months, where disabled people around the world have been devastated.

We do not know the extent of the devastation, and this is part of the problem. Very few countries have gathered data — let alone good data — on what happened to persons with disabilities during this crisis. One country that did, the United Kingdom, showed that persons with disabilities were twice as likely to die from COVID-19 as persons without disabilities, even after adjusting for age and other demographic circumstances. There is no reason to think this statistic would necessarily be better in countries that overlook this analysis.

At the same time as these costs in life and health, there is immediate economic hardship for persons with disabilities. In the United States in March and April alone, one million persons with disabilities lost their work. Their labour force participation decreased 20% compared to the 14% for persons without disabilities. Surveys from the majority world show urgent predicament of people who do not have enough money to get by and who have lost the often tenuous sources of income they had.

All this happens in the context of the challenges we pointed to in March and April, of isolation and lack of assistance, discrimination in medical treatment, and interruption of disability-related services. The COVID-19 crisis has cruelly exposed the disparities in unequal societies and the gaps in the systems meant to support people.

It didn’t have to be this bad. But it can still get a lot worse. While many countries have made some disability-related initiative as a response to the problems that have arisen, these are often small adjustments rather than the substantial supported needed to survive the further public health and economic challenges. The health emergency continues and protections for persons with disabilities, and many others, are still not there. Many countries are no longer pursuing the strict confinement or lockdown approaches they took earlier in the year, and the more open approach also creates considerable issues for persons with disabilities that need resolution.

A profound crisis is also a substantial transformation, which is not without positives. The links below show attention to disability not just from the more-active-than-ever disability community, but from mainstream media and from international development partners. (Sadly, they do not show the same attention from governments.) For some, although definitely not all, persons with disabilities the acceleration of going online have enabled types of social participation and work that were not possible before.

One of the greatest tragedy of the past months has been the devastation of long-term care facilities, institutions and other closed settings. Almost 50% of persons who died from COVID-19 were living in some form of closed setting or a so-called “care” facility. Deinstitutionalisation is an urgent issue for the disability community and now has become one for the world.

In some ways I will repeat myself. I admit my updates are part of the problem on this, but too much of our work on disability continues not to engage substantially with issues of age, gender, and other identity issues. There are many opportunities to make a new world, and we have to fight for it to be a better one. I feel we will be more successful the more allies we have with us and the more we can frame our issues as contributions to the upheavals that our societies and economies are undergoing.

They're in the files this time: see for pdf, or as a word document.

Contents highlight the:

  • data on what happened so far and the impact on persons with disabilities; disability in international and national responses;
  • inclusion in protection and interim measures;
  • health issues;
  • other areas of society; and
  • directions going forward.

Personal update: Back to Britain

I'm originally from the UK and, after twelve years living abroad, I just came back a month ago. While I'd been thinking about a return sometime, it was the virus-related changes to the world that made it happen this year.

Before then I was in my place in Cairo, where I'd been for a bit over four years. My pandemic experience was staying five months without leaving my apartment, except when I went to the airport - strange, but not as bad as it sounds. As well as the company of these newsletters and disability news I could have friends come to my window and zoom all around the world.

Another nice thing during my lockdown was practice juggling devilsticks: here's a video of me doing that. In the video I'm in my Cairo apartment with my pandemic haircut, pictures of friends on the wall, and after slowly walking onto scene I hold two sticks in my hands which I use to spin, throw, and catch a third.

So here I am back in Colchester, where I grew up. This will be home for a while. It will be great to connect to things going on in the UK, so if you're here, do drop a line!

Something I worked on: COVID-19 and the world of work

With my friends at the International Labour Organization I worked a to write a policy brief on COVID-19 and the World of Work: Ensuring the inclusion of persons with disabilities at all stages of the response (June). This was a moving target as everything changed in the first few months of the pandemic. But it was clear to us that we urgently need to show how persons with disabilities need to be in employment and economic policy going forward.

The brief covers how interim confinement measures relating to employment and social protection can be made inclusive; then how persons with disabilities can be included in socio-economic response to the crisis; and the opportunity to make long-lasting change:

The immediate response to the crisis, if disability inclusive, will shape new and better opportunities for persons with disabilities in the future. If visibility and
participation of persons with disabilities in the socioeconomic response is ensured, it will be a foundation for their role in the recovery. Globally, disability inclusion
needs to be fully embedded in the international cooperation efforts that will support the recovery from the crisis.

See more on other work the ILO has done in the collection of links.

News that isn't COVID-19

By “news”, I mean films. Rising Phoenix, a documentary on the Paralympic Games, is out on Netflix. See a review from the Guardian (August).

If you still haven't watched Crip Camp, go and do that first, and if you want to rewatch it or share it with your friends, then Netflix have released it available to all, on youtube, whether you have a Netflix subscription or not.

Until next time…

Hopefully at a shorter interval. I am wondering whether to continue the approach of text on email and then the links in a separate file. Let me know if that doesn't work as well for you, and especially if I can improve further the accessibility or usability of either.

Thanks all. Take care, and keep on fighting the good fight.