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Building back better: toward a minority, indigenous and disability-inclusive post-Covid-19 world

3 December 2020

By Lauren Avery, MRG’s Minority and Disability Intersectional Officer

Although the effects of the pandemic have been felt worldwide, they have not been evenly distributed. In particular, minorities and indigenous peoples have not only borne the brunt of the disease itself ­­­- suffering disproportionate infection and death rates – but also the effects of restrictions to control the virus, such as national, regional or local lockdowns. Some of these impacts were explored in the recent MRG briefing, ‘Inequality and the impact of Covid-19: How discrimination is shaping the experiences of minorities and indigenous peoples during the pandemic’.

Similarly, for persons with disabilities around the world, Covid-19 has presented particularly severe impacts, including high death rates. The Covid-19 Disability Rights Monitor highlighted the ‘catastrophic impact’ globally of the pandemic on the rights of persons with disabilities. It is no surprise that the theme of this year’s International Day of Persons with Disabilities is ‘Building back better: Toward a disability-inclusive, accessible and sustainable post Covid-19 world’.

But while minorities, indigenous peoples and persons with disabilities represent some of the most severely impacted during the pandemic, the situation is even more acute for those at the intersection between these groups – persons with disabilities belonging to a minority or indigenous community, constituting a ‘minority within a minority’ for whom the impacts of Covid-19 have been even more profound.

Multiple and intersecting impacts

In April, MRG along with 22 other organizations issued a statement highlighting the specific impact of the pandemic on persons with disabilities from minority, indigenous and other marginalised communities. Anecdotal evidence collected by this network showed that persons with disabilities from these communities faced particular impacts during lockdown around the world. A lack of accessible information available in minority and Indigenous languages meant that persons with disabilities from these communities were often last to learn about Covid-19 and how they could protect themselves. National and regional lockdowns for unspecified amounts of time and without necessary exemptions meant that access to personal assistance and essential medical care was further constrained.

The economic impact was also particularly severe for this group, who often already rely on insufficient social support and precarious work for survival, pushing many to the brink. Finally, in many parts of the world, the pandemic saw an increase in racial discrimination, with minorities frequently blamed for the spread of the virus, while persons with disabilities were regarded in some quarters as more ‘expendable’ as pressure on limited health resources grew. Medical rationing, including ‘do not resuscitate’ orders being forced on persons with disabilities, was justified through arbitrary and ableist notions of frailty and quality of life.

Even before the pandemic, minority and indigenous persons with disabilities experienced intersectional discrimination on account of their overlapping identities, which can be hard to capture or address using traditional legal mechanisms that address only a single axis of discrimination. Gender-based oppression adds another layer of complexity, often resulting in higher rates of violence, abuse and more extreme marginalization for minority and indigenous women with disabilities. For persons with disabilities from minority and indigenous communities, ‘normality’ was always far from being adequate.

How do we build back better, for all?

In ‘building back better’ after Covid-19, we need to recognize the groups who repeatedly fall through the cracks: those people excluded not only from political participation and development, but also sidelined within civil society and human rights movements. If disability rights are not acknowledged, then community activism will remain incomplete. And if all constituencies of persons with disabilities are not included in disability rights activism, then in important ways the status quo of the old, inadequate ‘normal’ will remain in place.

Data is key to building back better after Covid-19. With the development of the Washington Questions and more recently the Disability Data Advocacy Kit, the importance of good data on disability has become increasingly recognised and addressed. The toolkit, released in November 2020, is a fantastic initiative to drive forward the struggle to secure the rights of some 1 billion persons with disabilities around the world. But disability data that does not disaggregate by other characteristics, including ethnicity, minority or indigenous status, cannot reveal the complex issues that are at play in the lives of many persons with disabilities with intersectional identities who face discrimination on multiple levels. Some progress has been made in improving and refining data collection, particularly for indigenous persons with disabilities, estimated to number 54 million worldwide. But even here the picture is largely incomplete, while reliable data on persons with disabilities from other marginalized groups is severely lacking.

In response to the absence of specific, disaggregated data on persons with disabilities from minority and indigenous communities, MRG has started work on updating our World Directory on Minorities and Indigenous Peoples with information on disability. Working with partners in Argentina, Iraq, Nepal, Tanzania and Thailand, we have now added ‘disability’ sections to five countries, with others set to follow. MRG invite our partners and supporters to use and contribute to this new initiative to address the data gap for minority and indigenous persons with disabilities and include them in their work.

The research to date highlights the different ways that discrimination and marginalization can interact to create deeper and more entrenched patterns of exclusion. In Argentina, for instance, while many of the country’s indigenous population contend with limited access to education and health care due to language barriers and physical distance, for persons with disabilities in these communities the difficulties are even more acute. In Iraq, in the wake of ISIS’s targeted campaign of violence against Yezidis and other communities in the north of the country, minorities are disproportionately represented among persons with disabilities and face added challenges due to displacement. In Nepal, minority and indigenous persons with disabilities struggle to access affordable, culturally appropriate assistive technologies, barring them from even the limited resources now available for persons with disabilities there. In Tanzania, persons with albinism not only face obstacles in receiving basic treatments such as sun cream to manage their condition, but also suffer widespread social stigma ­– resulting, alongside hate speech and ostracization, in dozens of deadly attacks in recent years. Meanwhile, in Thailand’s conflict-affected Southern Border Provinces, barriers to assistive devices such as mobility aids and the limited availability of services for repair and maintenance mean that persons with disabilities are left without the essential equipment to enable their mobility and full participation in society.

These diverse examples demonstrate that there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to address intersectional discrimination for minority and indigenous persons with disabilities in various contexts. What is needed, instead, is a rights-based approach that recognizes the complex realities of disability, ethnicity and discrimination, with the necessary data to identify those most at risk of being left behind.

Photo: People use sign language at a demonstration for the International Day of Sign Language, Belgium 2018 / FFSB Belgique