If a ‘new normal’ is to be a better normal it must include persons with disabilities

Firehiwot Tadese, Disability Inclusion Intern – Gender, Equality and Diversity & ILO/AIDS Branch

Like many people in Geneva, I’m spending the COVID-19 lockdown outside my home country. Originally from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, I have a masters in Cultural Foundations of Education with advanced studies in Disability Studies from Syracuse University. I also have a suppressed immune system, so isolation during this crisis is vital to keep me healthy.

There would have been many positive things about being back in Ethiopia right now, including my social support network. Nevertheless, working at the ILO headquarters in Switzerland also has benefits. It’s got me thinking about the situation of persons with disabilities during the COVID-19 crisis in both ‘developing’ and ‘developed’ countries, and how – if we make changes – things could be much better for all of us when the crisis ends.

For one thing, I’m teleworking. It’s great that technology is making accessibility and inclusion a reality for some persons with disabilities. But those “some” are a minority. If I were in Ethiopia, I couldn’t telework because of limited access to technology and to the internet. Indeed, when it comes to accessing technology, most countries in the Global South, where more than 80 per cent of those with disabilities live, are being left behind.

In Geneva, I also do my grocery shopping online, which wouldn’t be possible in Addis Ababa. In fact, it would be hard for me just to get to the shops because, even before the crisis, the public transportation system was largely inaccessible. With COVID-19 the situation would be worse because I would need to hold people’s hands to get in and out of buses and grasp handrails to use stairs, all of which would increase my risk of virus infection.

I also feel privileged because I have a job, and one that I feel passionate about. Most of the one billion persons with disabilities in the world don’t have jobs. If they do, they are likely to work in the informal economy. Forget about worrying what to buy online; they are worrying about just getting food on the table.

People with disabilities are solution providers and co-creators during crises / Disability-rights activist and actor Marlee Matlin

As a woman with a disability, I know first-hand that discrimination and exclusion can happen because of both my gender and my disability. In every part of the world, women with disabilities encounter even greater barriers to the labour market than their male counterparts. We don’t yet know for sure what impact the current crisis is having on the employment of persons with disabilities, but in previous crises they – especially women – were among those who lost their jobs first.

Furthermore, standard social protection measures do not usually cover people with disabilities adequately. When we talk about disability-specific social benefits, we see that only one per cent of persons with significant disabilities in low-income countries can access these.

A new ILO brief, COVID-19 and the World of Work: Ensuring the inclusion of persons with disabilities at all stages of the response, highlights the way that the pre-existing inequalities facing people with disabilities also increases the threat to their lives and livelihoods posed by COVID-19.

At the same time, the brief also points out how the virus opens up a chance to change this. Post-pandemic, a ‘new normal’ can also be a “better normal” – in both developing and developed countries. But only if it fully includes and respects the opinions, needs and rights of persons with disabilities.

As the ILO brief puts it, “It is an opportunity to reinforce the rights of persons with disabilities and enhance their inclusion in social and economic life… A more inclusive future of work is possible for all.”

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