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Opportunities and challenges for disability inclusion during the COVID-19 pandemic

Themes: Inclusive Design, Assistive Technology

Colour image of Mikaela Patrick

Mikaela Patrick

Inclusive Design Researcher

Colour profile image of Dr Giulia Barbareschi

Dr Giulia Barbareschi

Researcher in Assistive Technology

Measures implemented by governments worldwide in response to the escalation of the COVID-19 global pandemic have had a significant impact on everyone.

Lockdown and physical distancing policies have led many people to spend the majority of their time at home, only leaving the house for basic essentials and relying on digital infrastructure and delivery services for work, learning, socialising and receiving supplies more than ever before.

However, many people with disabilities might be affected by some of these changes in unique and unexpected ways, both positively and negatively.

Exclusion and digital gaps

Some of these changes have the potential of substantially improving the accessibility of work, education and other services. However, globally both concerns and criticisms are being raised at how the pandemic could exacerbate inequality.

Most of these services are dependent on the availability of digital connectivity. This puts people who have reduced access to digital technologies, for economic, infrastructural or social reasons at an increased disadvantage, especially in low and middle-income countries. For example, some of the work done by GDI Hub and GSMA as part of AT2030 has already looked at how the mobile phone access gap is higher for people with disabilities.

Mobile phone kiosk features mobile devices, plugs and other accesories.
Not everyone can access the same standards of technology to allow for digital connectivity in a world that is physically distanced. Image credit: Giulia Barbareschi (Nairobi, Kenya 2019)

Not every house is adequate for lockdown

There is an assumption that people have the physical resources to make these changes, such as adequate housing and financial resources.

We are seeing homes being expected to become nurseries, schools and workspaces in a very short time, assuming people have the space and equipment to do that, as well as having the capacity to balance working, learning and caring demands.

This could be extremely challenging for households featuring people with disabilities who, according to UK government data, are more likely to live in poverty and unsuitable housing conditions. In low and middle-income countries, due to increased links between poverty and disability, the situation may become even more difficult.

Aerial view of informal settlement in Nairobi, Kenya
Physical distancing and lockdown policies assume people are living in conditions that allow them to be possible. Image credit: Giulia Barbareschi (Nairobi, Kenya 2019)

Reduced or changed services often harm those who need them the most

At a larger scale, we are also seeing some of our most vital infrastructures adapt.

Small and large shops are reorganising to maintain safe distances, adjusting hours to accommodate vulnerable groups, and attempting to increase delivery capacity and streamline supply chains. Healthcare infrastructure is trying to increase capacity by adapting other buildings, quickly developing more economic and efficient equipment and integrating remote consultation and care. Transport services are reducing operations to compensate for lost incomes while enabling people to move around and access essential services.

However, alongside rapid mobilisation and innovation, tensions are apparent around maintaining existing health and care needs for people with disabilities or chronic health conditions.

Some arrangements should definitely be sustained in time but many wonder why now and not before?

The rapid implementation of remote work and education measures had sparked frustration among people with disabilities who highlighted how, before the advent of the current health crisis, these “reasonable adjustments” were often not considered feasible, despite benefits they could have to meet diverse needs.

The voices of people with disabilities and their allies must be appropriately heard and integrated during this health crisis, and to ensure this the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the International Disability Alliance have issued official recommendations.

What can we learn from this?

As the COVID-19 pandemic plays out, we think there is a need to understand both the positive and negative impacts of new policies and regulations. By understanding these impacts public and private bodies can identify opportunities to maintain changes that have been more inclusive and consider what more could be done to further inclusion beyond the pandemic.

We are beginning to see some positive examples of adjustments to policy to accommodate diverse needs, but hope governments and organisations will continue to be reflexive and adaptable as the situation continues to evolve.

When looking at the future we need to consider what the legacy the COVID-19 crisis is going to have on society. It is fundamental that the introduction of these new policies in response to the emergency doesn’t result in widening inequality further by not addressing the diverse needs of our global population, possibly leaving some people with disabilities worse off than before.

The ultimate goal for us all should be to see where the current health crisis has uncovered opportunities to change current work, education and social practice, for the better, and ensure that we emerge as a more inclusive society.

Moving forward more inclusive design is needed

The experience gained throughout the pandemic could also teach us how listening to and embedding the needs of people with disabilities in “non-pandemic times” might allow us to create systems that are better for everyone, and potentially more responsive in times of crisis.

The opportunities this may have to further the acceptance and application of inclusive design, of both physical and digital space, remain to be seen.

How inclusive design is understood, implemented and experienced around the world is the central focus of one of our sub-programmes of AT2030, ‘Inclusive Infrastructure’. Over the next three years, we will be conducting six global case studies to develop insights on the policy and practice of inclusive design and the perceived inclusivity of the built environment. We are interested to learn about the implications of the shifting policies, infrastructures and technologies we are witnessing on the future planning of inclusive cities, infrastructure and spaces.

Amadu leads group work with partially sighted participants
Amadu leads a group with partially sighted participants. Image Credit: Angus Stewart. Photo taken as part of the AT2030 programme work in Sierra Leone.

When looking at the future we need to consider what the legacy the COVID-19 crisis is going to have on society. It is fundamental that the introduction of these new policies in response to the emergency doesn’t result in widening inequality further by not addressing the diverse needs of our global population, possibly leaving some people with disabilities worse off than before.