Photograph taken by David Salti, Public Relations Officer, at Bethlehem Arab Society for Rehabilitation
People with disabilities are among the poorest and most marginalized groups in the world. They encounter access barriers to essential services, education and employment opportunities, which lead to further destitution and social exclusion. The pressing question here is what the living conditions of disabled people look like during the pandemic, given that 87.3% are unemployed, and 37.6% have never enrolled at school (Disability Survey, 2011). This blog will shed light on this situation during the COVID-19 lockdown from March to July 2020. As a Programme Director for the Community-based Rehabilitation Programme (CBR), and along with around 40 staff and community volunteers, led an initiative to respond to the essential needs of persons with disabilities and their families in the most disadvantaged communities in the West Bank-Palestine as they were at higher risks of further exclusion. The initiative aimed to identify the different needs of children and adults with disabilities to ensure that these needs are met through direct service delivery and networking with other service providers as well as to advocate the government to include these needs within their intervention plans.
A weak government role in tackling the pandemic
Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 in March 2020, the Palestinian government imposed restrictive measures including full lockdown in some areas, sanitization and social distancing measures. The focus has only been on mechanisms to break the chain of the spread of the virus but not to respond to the different needs of all citizens, including the vulnerable groups. This was explicit as the established local emergency committees have not received any public funding and have not included any representatives of the disability movement. The work of the emergency committees was not based on clear and professional mechanisms and was severely criticized as providing needs for the “undeserving” or the “affiliating” to specific parties or families.
The government's floundering role continued in establishing “Stand with Dignity Fund". A national fund that has been totally reliant on the private sector, charities and individual donations. The government has contributed nothing to the fund and the slogan was very telling, “the country is carried by its people”. Degrading, non-inclusive, long and insufficient aid marked this initiative, which looked like a bite after a long hunger on an inappropriate table.
A participatory, rights-based, and inclusive approach to tackling the pandemic
The concept of establishing an emergency response team emerged from that debate to bring this issue into the public and raise the voice of the disadvantaged. The role of the emergency response team at CBR was to provide a database to monitor the needs of persons with disabilities. We had hoped to turn it into a national mechanism accessed by the government and organizations, yet we intrigued discussion on how to ensure access to essential services in the emergency. We aimed to respond to an urgent need, and make poverty an urgent issue on the government’s policy agenda.
A web-based needs identification portal was developed and a group of community workers started to identify the needs of 4,000 people through phone calls and social media. This aimed to help service providers set the priorities, allocate financial resources and ensure equal access to essential needs in a rapid response. The needs included medical supplies and consumables, sanitizers and hygiene materials, medicines, food, and mental health. This database helped network with local actors, serve more than 1,500 people during the hard times in the lockdown.
Lessons learned, and lessons for the future
Despite the importance of this work, this practical experience has led to many issues and lessons that should be tackled structurally.
The adoption of the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the commitment to “no one will be left behind” and to “endeavour to reach the furthest behind first has proved just to be a cliché. The government has ignored the vulnerable groups alone, even though they spend huge sums of money on developing emergency response plans. The pandemic has brought again into mind the “Scientific Racism” and “Survival for the Fittest”. Disabled people expressed several times that they are scared about the fact that the virus is killing the most vulnerable far from the “others” again.
Securing the needs of everyone is an unquestionably urgent priority that cannot be postponed, but service quality has to be measured also by its availability, adequacy, affordability, sustainability and accountability. It has been quite clear that charity-based interventions eliminate accountability and present service providers as philanthropists, not as duty-bearers. These interventions will continue to be short-term solutions if there is no efficient lobby to urge the government to combat the root causes of poverty and mainstream these basic rights within the national policies and plans.
Meeting the different needs of disabled people have to be based on a rights approach that does not exacerbate the social stigma and respect human dignity. We have insisted to deliver this aid to homes to ensure their privacy and self-esteem. The conditions of lockdown and the desire of some families, especially women, to deliver in-kind assistance for fears that their needs of their children with disabilities will not be regarded as priority made us provide the service directly rather than other schemes such as the voucher.
This experience demonstrated a clear weakness in the government coordination mechanisms among all various actors and result in a high duplication of service provision as some people received aid from various institutions, whilst others have not received anything.
There is no national system for reaching marginalized and vulnerable groups. The emergency team has been able to function due to the availability of an updated database and community access tools. Addressing the issue of poverty and inequality needs empirical research that suggests long-lasting and systematic solutions and reflects the informed choices of the right holders.
The right to education for children with disabilities during the pandemic
As the rights of children with disabilities are not limited to food, and medical needs, we started surveying the Internet users and the availability of assistive devices and technologies, which enable them to engage in the online education. The result showed that 22% of the surveyed school-aged children did not have the internet, and 44% faced at least one difficulty in using the Internet and communication applications.
Now with the world becoming increasingly virtual, how can a child with a visual, hearing or intellectual disability who lacks such basic needs and support services can access to an equal educational opportunity without further isolation and stigmatization? Perhaps the answer may lead us to make our world more inclusive and equitable.
Iyad Hamdan is an MA Social Policy scholar in the School of Social Policy, University of Birmingham. He is a Researcher on Social Policy and Inclusion and former Director of Community-based Rehabilitation Program. Iyad can be contacted at: [email protected]