A COVID-19 helpline set up to help people with disabilities (PWDs) in Bengaluru, India, is no help at all, said a man with a speech disability who lives alone.
“He was trying to book an ambulance but since the government helpline numbers are all IVR-based he could not,” said Mini Jain, who started the helpline for PWDs. “There is no provision to book an ambulance through message/webform. Eventually, one of our volunteers took the details and helped him book an ambulance.”
For PWDs, who have always faced inclusion barriers, accessing healthcare has become more difficult due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Volunteers report receiving many messages asking for assistance daily.
“We were approached by an elderly couple, both visually impaired, who had Covid symptoms but were scared to get tested,” said Jain. “We arranged an online consultation and the doctor convinced them to get tested. They tested positive. The next challenge was to ensure they take the right medications. The doctor, assisted by one of our volunteers, agreed to do a video call and explain how to identify the medicines by touching and recognising the shape and size of tablets. He also helped them arrange and sort the medicines on dosage.”
Outside of regular office hours, Mini and more than 40 volunteers assist PWDs who call their helpline number, +91-8618803780. They join forces with other non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to help as many people as possible. The group has also organised a vaccination drive in Fraser Town – only for PWDs.
Volunteers stated the dissemination of pertinent information is largely inaccessible to most people with disabilities. The lack of information in sign language negatively affects those with speech and hearing disabilities. For instance, the COVID test clinics, ambulance helpline and war room numbers are audio enabled only. Most vaccination clinics are inaccessible to people who use wheelchairs.
“The challenges vary based on the disability. For example, the CoWIN portal does not comply with accessibility standards which is a barrier for many seeking slots. Many don’t even have access to technology,” Jain said.
Shivram Deshpande, operations head, Samarthanam trust for those with disabilities, said, “Arogya Sethu app cannot be accessed by visually impaired people like me. Many hospitals are not equipped to deal with PWDs. My speech and hearing impaired friends who went to the hospital struggled as they couldn’t communicate.”
Vishnu Soman, founder of Smileys India, a volunteer-based NGO, said, “We received a call from parents of a child with Down syndrome. They tested positive and wanted to know who would take care of the child since they had to isolate. It was impossible to get someone who was ready to go to their home. There was another request on whether there’s any special accommodation for Covid positive special children.”
Ballurappa, 33 and a musician with Samarthanam’s music band, said he needs someone to take him to the hospital when he is sick, so maintaining social distance is virtually impossible. “I’m visually impaired,” he said. “Now, don’t know how to go about getting vaccinated. When and where are PWDs going to get it? We have no clue.”