To celebrate the International Day of Persons With Disabilities, the United Nations called for increased action to tackle the challenges people with disabilities face, as well as acknowledge and address how COVID-19 has disproportionately affected the community.
“On this International Day of Persons With Disabilities, let us all commit to work together to tackle the obstacles, injustices, and discrimination that persons with disabilities experience,” UN Secretary-General António Guterres said in a statement Thursday.
The International Day of Persons With Disabilities takes place annually on Dec. 3 and was first celebrated in 1992. The theme of this year’s advocacy day is “Building Back Better,” which emphasizes the need for disability inclusion in the international COVID-19 response and recovery plan.
According to the UN, there are currently 1 billion people living with disabilities around the world, 80% of whom live in developing countries. They are more likely to live in poverty and experience higher rates of violence, neglect, and abuse.
While the COVID-19 crisis has exacerbated many pre-existing inequalities, people with disabilities have been among the most affected groups during the pandemic.
People living with disabilities are at higher risk of contracting the virus as they often lack access to clean water and sanitation. It can also be harder to socially distance for those who rely on physical contact with caretakers or live in group homes.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has also explained that people who have difficulty understanding information might struggle to practice preventative measures such as handwashing and social distancing. Others may not be able to communicate if they experience any symptoms.
Danlami Basharu, chair of the UN’s Committee on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities, said the lack of consultation with people with disabilities in the COVID-19 response plan was obvious.
“Problems that were wholly predictable were missed and this negatively affected both the legitimacy of immediate responses and their effectiveness,” he said in a statement.
Activists and experts also pointed to the challenges that people with disabilities have faced adjusting to online work and learning.
Audrey Azoulay, director-general of the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), stressed the effects of school closures on children and young people with disabilities.
“[Factoring disability into education] is crucial not only for students with disabilities, but also for their classmates. All students benefit from a more inclusive education … Access to education, like access to other common goods, must become universal,” Azoulay said in a statement.
Azoulay explained that online learning and working environments had not been developed to account for special needs like braille or sign language and that the international community needs to do better to support people with disabilities.
“As the world recovers from the pandemic, we must ensure that the aspirations and rights of persons with disabilities are included and accounted for in an inclusive, accessible, and sustainable post-COVID-19 world,” Guterres stressed in his statement.