Improving accessibility for people with disabilities – a neglected priority in the response to COVID

By Kazuyuki Uji and Håkan Björkman – UNDP Bangkok Regional Hub

May 20, 2021

Photo: UNDP/Bangladesh.

The COVID-19 pandemic is exposing serious concerns about access to knowledge and services for people with disabilities. How can people with disabilities  access COVID-related information, web-based vaccine registration, as well as social protection services, testing and vaccination sites?

May 20th marks Global Accessibility Awareness Day, a day to raise awareness on digital access and inclusion for the 15 percent of the world’s population, or 1 billion, who live with disabilities, including 690 million in Asia and the Pacific. The number of persons with disabilities is projected to increase due to global trends such as population ageing, a rise in non-communicable diseases such as strokes and diabetes, and injuries from intensifying climate-related disasters such as flooding and wildfires.

Accessibility – an unfulfilled human right

Lack of accessibility, thereby hindering access, lies at the heart of what constitutes a disability. The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities defines disability as resulting from “the interaction between persons with impairments and attitudinal and environmental barriers that hinders their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others.”

In other words, disability is not just caused by impairments but is also ‘created’ by disempowering social norms and conditions. Therefore, accessibility, or lack thereof, is a crucial determinant of dis/ability.

Around the world, accessibility is absent or inadequate in the built environment, transportation, information and communication and services. UN reports reveal, for example, that 70 percent of public buildings in Mongolia, 96 percent of public websites in China, and 90 percent of election polling stations in Jakarta, Indonesia, are not accessible for people with disabilities.

Due to inaccessibility, compounded by stigma and discrimination, persons with disabilities face access barriers in just about every domain, including health care, education, employment, public transport, banking and criminal justice systems. These access barriers leave persons with disabilities behind in reaping the benefits of socio-economic development and opportunities.

The consequences are grave

Persons with disabilities face a higher risk of poverty, more than double in some countries, as compared to persons without disabilities; the employment rate for general population in Thailand is 75.1 percent, in contrast to only 25.7 percent for persons with disabilities; and they are among the poorest of the poor. Inaccessible hygiene and health facilities and COVID-19 vaccine websites, apps or sites endanger the lives of persons with disabilities.

One of the neglected areas is access to knowledge and information, which is invisible, unlike the built environment such as wheel-chair access.

For example, only 30 percent of survey respondents with disabilities in Bangladesh could access information on COVID-related social protection. The World Blind Union estimates that blind or partially-sighted people cannot access more than 90 percent of published books and materials. However, access to knowledge is fundamental for persons with disabilities to gain education and employment, protect themselves from harm including COVID-19 risks, and make informed decisions for independent, fulfilling lives.

Taking action … and walking the talk

In partnership with governments, the World Blind Union and national blind organizations, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) is advocateding for improved access to published works as a fundamental human right. Since 2014, UNDP has provided Asian countries such as Cambodia, Indonesia, Thailand and Viet Nam with technical and policy advocacy support to join the Marrakesh Treaty. This international treaty aims to improve access to published works for persons with so-called ‘print disabilities.’   

UNDP in Asia and the Pacific also strives to make its own publications accessible. The UNDP Samoa Multi-Country Office developed the first braille version of UNDP’s flagship publication, ‘the Human Development Report’ in 2020. It provided the first-ever opportunity for people with visual impairment in Samoa to read the Human Development Report. UNDP Nepal released a braille version of an information booklet on court and judicial processes, while UNDP Indonesia published a talking book of a policy brief on the Marrakesh Treaty.

UNDP Cambodia and Viet Nam jointly produced an advocacy video with many disability-inclusive and accessible features: narration and voice-over for blind people; sign-language interpretation for people who are deaf or hard-of-hearing; high-contrast subtitling for people with low vision; and the narration by a UNDP staff who is blind. (The Cambodian and Vietnamese versions are also available).

UNDP is also supporting disability-inclusive COVID-19 responses, including surveys on the socio-economic impact of persons with disabilities by UNDP Viet Nam as well as various disability inclusion efforts in the context of COVID-19 by UNDP Sri Lanka, Bhutan and Bangladesh.

Investing in leaving no one behind

Creating accessible formats or adding accessibility features in products, services, projects or built environments requires additional considerations and resources. However, these are not additional expenses; they are essential investments to fulfill the fundamental rights of 15 percent of the world’s population, with substantial spill-over benefits for the rest, for example universal design infrastructure, easy-to-navigate websites, a broader customer base.

Investing in improving accessibility is one of the most effective ways to ‘reach the furthest behind first,’ a prerequisite for ‘leaving no one behind.’

Global Accessibility Awareness Day reminds us to take action, today.

Want to know more about the Marrakesh Treaty? Check out these resources:





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