By Athena Katsouli, Research Associate, European University Cyprus

During last year European Union (EU) actions related to COVID-19 pandemic are on the highest position on the priority list of EU. People with disabilities in all countries came across with the hardest face of COVID-19 in all the aspects of their life. The discussion and concerns in relation to the exclusion of persons with disabilities from society, without being able to access education, employment, healthcare and in general participation in their community is not new. Nevertheless, under the pandemic circumstances, inclusion becomes even more imperative and in the struggle against coronavirus no one can be left behind.

Public health in every person’s life is not only important, but vital. Aiming at the highest possible standard of health for persons with disabilities empowerment through accessible, valid and accurate information is essential. Persons with disabilities should be able to take the right decisions regarding their health during the time of pandemic and to be part of their nation’s approach against COVID-19. Each member state of the European Union has to take actions that will eliminate the obstacles persons with disabilities come along and to prevent practices that lead to discrimination actions. UN Secretary-General António Guterres at the launch of Policy Brief on Persons with Disabilities and COVID-19 stated that “We must guarantee the equal rights of people with disabilities to access healthcare and lifesaving procedures during the pandemic.” (UN, 2020). In addition, World Health Organization announced the need of digital accessible information to any person with disability (WHO, 2021).

In Cyprus, just after the outbreak of the pandemic disability organisations and advocate bodies raised the issue of accessibility of information and services as matter of human rights and equality. In early April 2020 the Commissioner of Administration and the Protection of Human Rights (Ombudsman) made specific recommendations to the Republic of Cyprus, so all guidelines and emergency measures are set in compliance with the protection of human rights, and particularly highlighted the importance of accessibility of disseminated information. Following these recommendations and the assertions of the Cyprus Confederation of Disability Organisations (2020), the competent authorities initiated efforts and activities for publishing accessible information in relation to Covid-19 response measures, mainly through the Press and Information Office of Cyprus (https://www.pio.gov.cy/coronavirus/). The page contains video material in sign language, including other features of accessibility, such as captioning and visualisations. In addition, an effort to present main information in easy-to-read format was also made, in collaboration with the Committee for the Protection of Persons with Intellectual Disabilities (http://www.cpmental.com.cy/), who also produced and disseminated easy-to-read information.

On the other hand, it is acknowledged that one size doesn’t fit all and designing for specific groups of persons with disabilities does not mean accessibility for all. In addition, accessible and inclusive information needs to reach other groups of people that are digital and socially excluded, such as older adults, persons with sever multiple disabilities, refugees and non-native language speakers, etc. Nevertheless, the impact of disability organisations and advocates in Cyprus, even though very specific in terms of activities and period, should be considered a step forward! There is of course still work to be done, and it is important to grasp this opportunity and extend awareness, policy and practices on accessibility and digital inclusion to a more generalised approach. Even during the pandemic, persons with disabilities are entitled to access not only to general information about coronavirus response and the protection measures, but they should have access to information related to COVID-19 testing, COVID-19 vaccination strategies and vaccine priority plans. For all these reasons and in order to ensure inclusion, disability has to be faced through targeted actions and measures, especially taking into consideration the rapid shift to digitalisation. This is one of the main reasons why disability activists and the academia has levelled criticism against the Government’s failure to include persons with disabilities in decision making about COVID-19 pandemic response measures.  State countries and European Union have to closely collaborate with representative organisations of persons with disabilities, as personal and public health and healthcare services are a priority in human rights, especially now!

Resources

Cyprus Confederation of Disability Organizations (2020): http://www.kysoa.org.cy/kysoa/page.php?pageID=25&mpath=/24

Ombudsman report (3 April 2020), Ex officio Placement Commissioner for Administration and Human Protection Rights as Independent Promotion, Protection and Monitoring of the United Nations Convention Nations on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities regarding the accessibility of people with disabilities information on the COVID-19 pandemic, available at: http://www.ombudsman.gov.cy/ombudsman/ombudsman.nsf/All/7EE18391CBE8E56CC2258542002907CB/$file/AYT_9_2020.pdf?OpenElement

United  Nations (5 March 2021). Peace, dignity and equality on a healthy planet. COVID-19 Outbreak and Persons with Disabilities. https://www.un.org/en/

World Health Organization. (5 March 2021). Violence, injuries and disability. http://www.emro.who.int/