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Distancing not an option for people with disabilities

Distancing not an option for people with disabilities

Often reliant on a robust caregiving and support network, people with disabilities (PwDs) are a community hit hard during the lockdown and resulting operational slowdown – impacting jobs, businesses, and livelihood.

Jitender Aggarwal, a practicing dentist who turned disability rights activist when he gradually lost vision to macular degeneration of retina in 2004, says that for PwDs, challenges are aplenty during the pandemic.

Aggarwal, who is the founder of Sarthak Educational Trust, says distancing is not an option for many as they rely on others including personal support workers and caregivers to support their needs including movement, bathing, and feeding. He feels information on COVID-19 infection prevention strategies focused on the needs of people with disabilities are not being disseminated through media or other sources.

"Due to Covid 19 restriction, many people with disabilities who operated small businesses or other informal livelihood ventures (i.e. home cell phone repair or machine repair shops, selling goods, etc) are unable to work and there is a significant loss of income, which is not compensated by government programs.

"Country-wide lockdown which places restrictions on movement within the community (including bus travel) and lack of income prevent them from acquiring needed protective material including face masks, hand sanitizers, and hand wash. Acquiring these materials is particularly important for people with disabilities as many are in direct physical contact with caregivers and support workers. In addition, COVID-19 rules surrounding the restriction of movement within the community affects people with mobility issues, even more, creating another barrier to obtaining these materials. Government programs provide basic needs including rice and grains, but not protective material," Aggarwal said.

Aggarwal, whose NGO focuses on making PwDs self-reliant by skilling them and helping them get jobs, says job loss affects not just the individual, but also family income.

Speaking about the viability of telemedicine for people with disabilities, he said that it is a substitute but not the solution as early intervention therapies need manual intervention but social distancing restricts this. "Telemedicine is more dependent on parental/caretaker support, supervision followed by sensitivity among the individual."

Aggarwal's initiative, Sarthak, imparted training via the online medium to around 1200 people with disabilities, and provided job opportunities to 300 PwDs under the work-from-home model, along with online counseling of individuals and families on multiple themes. It also connected people with disabilities with available community resources which are difficult to access during this period of lockdown including pharmacies, medical clinics, and assistive equipment providers.

"Sarthak always advocates for the business model – hire a PwD on the basis of his talent and not on his disability," he said.

The activist highlights initiatives that must be taken at the policy and community level to better-enable the community in these hard times. Among those, are providing accessible information to people with disabilities, diverting a percentage of PM Cares fund towards disability empowerment, redirecting CSR funds towards healthcare and skill-building, and promoting digitization and e-learning..