As India approaches its ninth month of the coronavirus pandemic, many disabled people continue to struggle to buy food and obtain basic medical care and many are losing their livelihoods, as Arundhati Nath reports.
Twenty-five-year-old Swaminathan used to be the breadwinner for his family-of-five.
“I worked as a steward at Talking Hands Restaurant in Hyderabad until the lockdown was announced,” says Swaminathan, who is deaf and lives in Thanjavur, South India.
When the restaurant where all staff are deaf closed in March, he lost his livelihood.
“Without a job, money was a problem and we had trouble getting provisions for food and refilling gas cylinders,” he says.
While organisations like the Deaf Enabled Foundation support him and other deaf people financially, Swaminathan and his family remain affected by health issues, but are fearful of visiting a hospital because of the scale of the crisis.
“My mother and brother are ill. Earlier, they used to undergo regular treatment at the government hospital and they received free medicines. But due to the spread of the virus, we had to restrict our visits to the hospital to once every two months lest we get infected.”
With a population of 1.3bn, India’s healthcare system is under tremendous pressure as Covid cases continue to rise. More than 6m Indians have tested positive for the virus so far and there have been more than 92,000 reported deaths.
Sanjay Kumar Bakshi and his wife, Sanju, from New Delhi, are visually impaired.
He says: “I was forced to leave my job at a private company as my employment contract wasn’t renewed.”
He had been earning $203.50 (£160) each month and although he is now selling incense sticks, he makes less than half his previous wage.
“I’m still on the lookout for a job, but I wonder why no one wants to give me a job although I’m educated and have work experience.”
A study of 1,067 disabled people by the National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (NCPEDP) found that 73% of respondents had faced severe hardship and challenges during the pandemic.
It found 57% of those faced financial crisis, 13% faced challenges in accessing basic food and 9% faced obstacles in access to healthcare.
The NCPEDP says some disabled people – such as those who sold goods at railway stations or were factory workers- reported losing their livelihoods. It has also noted an increase in domestic violence against disabled women and children.
In India, disabled people are sometimes seen as objects of sympathy and unsuited to professional employment. This value judgement has been compounded during the pandemic by a reduction in transport services and an increase in the use of online education, which is often inaccessible.
Ramya Miryala, director of Deaf Enabled Foundation, says some deaf people she has worked with have been bankrupted due to not being able to travel to work when public transport ceased and the cost of private cabs was prohibitive.
“Some hearing-impaired people were unable to pay rent and their landlords were troubling them to pay up,” she says. “Many companies that these people worked for couldn’t pay salaries on time, owing to loss of business due to the lockdown.”
It can be challenging for some deaf people, in lower economic groups, to pursue certain jobs because of a lack of accessible technology and interpreter support all of which impacts on employment prospects.
Hyderabad-based G. Sunitha, 37, used to work as a housekeeper, but had to resign when public transport stopped during lockdown.
“My husband is disabled as well and doesn’t have work now, my father too passed away recently. We’ve had difficulties getting food and we had to leave our house because we couldn’t pay rent,” she says.
“I’m currently staying with my sister.”
Although Sunitha receives some subsidised food, she is yet to receive the monthly disability pension of $19 (£15). She had to re-apply for the provision in March but there have been administrative delays due to lockdown. While she waits, she struggles to pay for the basics and her daughter’s education.
It is not just a lack of financial support which has impacted the disabled community. Acts of human kindness and offers of help – such as guiding someone through a train station – have also decreased temporarily, due to fears of the virus and social distancing.
George Abraham, Founder and CEO of SCORE Foundation which works for the empowerment of visually impaired people, says: “People are now likely to be apprehensive and hesitant to come forward to lead and guide a person with disability like they did earlier.”
But he believes these changes will be temporary and things will improve in time.
“I believe technology can provide solutions as far as education and accessibility is concerned. There will be a lot of changes in the future.”
Other people in the charity sector, however, remain more sceptical.
The NCPEDP says it wants pensions to be provided swiftly and that the food, healthcare and Covid-testing needs of disabled people and their families should be prioritised. It says caregivers should also be issued with passes to enable them to travel to their clients’ homes.
But it also fears these calls may not be heard.
Its executive director, Arman Ali, says, “In spite of creating so much noise and engaging with the government at all levels across the country, I’m not sure if disabled people would be prioritised in any future disasters.
“Since disability in India continues to be looked at as charity work only, there isn’t much political will and unfortunately, disability issues do not find a place in the mainstream agenda and policies.”
Although approached, the Indian government’s Disability Affairs department declined to comment on this article.