International Day of Persons with Disabilities (2021) — Reflections on the Intersection of Disability and COVID-19

7 min readDec 3, 2021


By Christine Peta

The International Day of Persons with Disabilities is a United Nations-led day of recognition that takes place every year on 3 December. As we commemorate the day this year under the theme of “Leadership and Participation of Persons with Disabilities towards an Inclusive, Accessible and Sustainable post-COVID-19 World, we take this opportunity to share the lessons that researchers at Includovate have learned with regards to the impact of COVID-19 on persons with disabilities in low-income countries.

This article lists some of the key challenges that researchers at Includovate have identified in low-income countries through a literature review that includes a rapid assessment undertaken by the UNESCO Southern Africa Regional Office with regards to the intersection of COVID-19 and disability. At the end of the blog, recommendations for promoting the leadership and participation of persons with disabilities and their families in COVID-19 response and recovery are outlined.

Challenges with hygiene and personal protective equipment

  • Non-transparent face masks create barriers to communication particularly for some deaf persons who rely heavily on lip-reading for communication with others. Clear face masks need to be manufactured and distributed.
  • Some persons with disabilities experience difficulties in undertaking daily living activities, such as eating, bathing, toileting, dressing and wearing personal protective equipment (PPE), without close and constant support. Thus social distancing is not possible. There is a need to prioritise vaccinations for persons with disabilities and their carers, and to also raise awareness among carers with regards to adhering to prevention practices.
  • Some types of disabilities cause some persons to chew their face masks or to drool, thus constantly wetting their face masks with saliva. There is need for governments to provide higher quantities of free face masks to persons with disabilities and their families and to distribute washable face masks, rather than disposable ones.
  • Seeking balance by touching surfaces when moving around buildings increases the exposure of some persons with disabilities including blind persons to COVID-19 infection. The washing and sanitizing of handrails and surfaces should be mandatory in public places.
  • Compared to their non-disabled counterparts, persons with disabilities also have to sanitize their assistive devices, such as wheelchairs and crutches. There is a need for governments to provide sanitizers to persons with disabilities for free.
  • Not all types of sanitizers are appropriate for all people, some sanitizers may cause serious skin problems for persons with albinism. The hands of persons with disabilities should not be forcibly sanitized when they enter public spaces. 1

Access to information and support

  • COVID-19 information is generally provided on most media platforms, but in formats that are rarely checked for their accessibility by persons with disabilities. For example, pdf should have alt. added to ensure screen readers can read them. Sign Language during news broadcasts, especially on health messages is not made available to persons with disabilities, thus reducing the likelihood that they can independently comply. There is a need to provide COVID-19 information in appropriate formats on all relevant platforms including media platforms.
  • Persons with disabilities generally face exclusion and discrimination in the community and their lack of compliance with safety protocols (because they have not been able to access and comply with information) will increase their discrimination and exclusion in most facets of life. There is a need for duty bearers to ensure that COVID-19 information is provided in formats that are accessible to persons with all kinds of disabilities.
  • Some officials who enforce COVID-19 lockdown restrictions in some low-income countries lack knowledge of disability issues, hence they may either ignore, beat or chase away persons with psychosocial impairments when they find them loitering during curfew hours. There is a need to train law enforcement agents on disability inclusion.

Sexual and Gender-Based Violence (SGBV) and Sexual and Reproductive Health (SRH)

  • Generally, persons with disabilities are found among the poorest of the poor, and most livelihood sources of persons with disabilities in low-income countries are informal activities such as vending, begging in city centers, cross-border trading, buying & selling food items, clothes, selling airtime vouchers and begging on intercity buses. Lockdown restrictions resulted in persons with disabilities being unable to engage in livelihood activities, thus bringing about reduced income and intense suffering. Decreased income increases the vulnerability of persons with disabilities and in particular women with disabilities to increased levels of SGBV, especially in situations where they economically depend on the perpetrator. There is a need for governments to scale up social protection programs that reach persons with disabilities in both rural and urban areas.
  • COVID-19 lockdown restrictions make it difficult for persons with disabilities to report SGBV — police in many low-income countries may take longer to respond as they may be assigned duties that relate to ensuring public adherence to prevention protocols. Delays in court hearings may also be experienced due to COVID-19 lockdown restrictions — persons with psychosocial impairments may then find it difficult to remember and recount what happened. There is a need for governments to ensure appropriate functionality of the justice delivery system within the context of COVID-19 albeit taking preventive measures.
  • COVID-19 lockdown restrictions bring about the limited access to SRH services by persons with disabilities. Supply chain disruptions and shop closures reduced access to sanitary ware, contraceptives, and SRH information in appropriate formats that include Braille for blind persons and Sign Language for deaf persons. There is a need for governments to come up with initiatives that bring SRH services closer to the doorstep of persons with disabilities. 2

Access to Humanitarian Assistance

  • Humanitarian officials at food distribution points rarely consider disability inclusion hence some persons with physical or multiple disabilities are made to stand for long periods of time to access food items. There is a need to train humanitarian officers on disability inclusion.
  • Exposure of persons with albinism to direct sunlight whilst they queue for long periods of time for food aid or other donations increases their vulnerability to skin cancer and eye-sight problems. Humanitarian officials should ensure that persons with albinism are not exposed to direct sunlight at food distribution points.

Access to Education

  • The temporary closure of schools due to COVID-19 has resulted in the offer of radio lessons in some contexts, but some learners may find it difficult to access such lessons — for example Deaf learners or some learners with psychosocial impairments. Radiofrequency does not cover all places in all countries, and some families cannot afford online learning due to the prohibitive cost of the internet and the required equipment. Moreover, not all online learning is accessible or appropriate for persons with disabilities. There is a need to ensure that education in the COVID-19 context is accessible to persons with disabilities in appropriate formats.
  • Isolation from school and lack of interaction with peers may cause mental stress and additional mental health problems for children with cognitive impairments. There is a need to come up with initiatives that enhance interaction among children with disabilities and their peers in formats that do not increase their vulnerability to COVID-19 infection.

So what do we do?

We need to ensure the active and meaningful participation of persons with disabilities and their representative organisations in all sectors. That way, we will be able to learn and evaluate our current structures to see if they can fully function in the complex environment that has been created by the COVID-19 pandemic and take the necessary action.

We need to realize that disability inclusion is a necessary part of international development, hence we all need to support its growth. The reality is that the restrictions that have been necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic, have in many ways closed the doors of disability inclusion. The pandemic has set back disability inclusion for years, and it may now take longer for disability inclusion to be realized across sectors.

Thus in line with the 2021 theme for the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, there is a need for all of us to promote the leadership and participation of persons with disabilities in research, policy, and programming if we are to achieve an inclusive, accessible and sustainable post-COVID-19 world.


  1. Albinism is regarded as a disability in many low-income countries
  2. Persons with disabilities are more likely to need medical services, speech therapy, assistive devices, and medication, and challenges with access to health care during COVID-19 lockdown restrictions are prevalent, thus increasing vulnerability to health complications.

About the Author

Dr Christine Peta is a disability, policy, international development and research expert, with educational qualifications that include a PhD in Disability Studies. She has excellent experience of providing technical support to governments on making and implementing national disability policies, as well as supporting the private and development sectors on mainstreaming disability and establishing targeted disability projects. She occupies active space in the United Nations Partnership on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNPRPD), which is a unique collaborative effort that brings together UN entities, governments, organisations of persons with disabilities, and broader civil society to support the full implementation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD).

About Us

Includovate is a feminist research incubator that “walks the talk”. Includovate is an Australian social enterprise consisting of a consulting firm and research incubator that designs solutions for gender equality and social inclusion. Its mission is to incubate transformative and inclusive solutions for measuring, studying, and changing discriminatory norms that lead to poverty, inequality, and injustice. To know more about us at Includovate, follow our social media: @includovate, LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram.




Connecting and empowering people to overcome the norms that lead to poverty, inequality and injustice.