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Opinion

Empowering the disabled in a post-COVID world

Disability inclusion must be central to the region's response to build back better

| Southeast Asia
A handicapped man walks past in heavy dust storm during nationwide lockdown in Allahabad on May 5: we must ensure that no one is left behind.   © NurPhoto/Getty Images

Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana is Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and executive secretary of the UN's Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed and exacerbated the exclusion faced by the 690 million people living with disabilities in the Asia-Pacific region. In initial responses to the pandemic, there was a serious risk that the needs of people with disabilities would be overlooked. Lockdowns and fears of infection left people with disabilities stranded in their own homes without access to essential goods and services.

Many lost jobs and suffered financial losses due to the economic impact of the pandemic. Inaccessible digital infrastructure meant that people with disabilities missed out on critical information about COVID and work opportunities. Some also suffered severely when personal assistants became quarantined or ill and no temporary support was available.

As countries and communities around the world observe the International Day of Persons with Disabilities on Thursday, we celebrate the resilience of people with disabilities in the Asia-Pacific region in the face of the continuing pandemic. At the same time, we must ensure that disability inclusion is central to the region's response to build back better and ensure that no one is left behind.

We are seeing encouraging signs as governments around the Asia-Pacific have started taking action, in partnership with organizations for people with disabilities and other stakeholders, to ensure that COVID responses address the specific needs of the disabled. New research by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, or ESCAP, shows that at least 44 governments in our region have developed COVID responses concerning people with disabilities.

Interventions have been diverse, from disseminating accessible COVID information to dispatching sign language interpreters to medical facilities and delivering disability-specific services via virtual platforms such as tele-rehabilitation. Governments are also disbursing emergency cash transfers, food packages, and hygiene kits to people with disabilities while extending the validity period of disability benefits.

As societies begin adapting to the new normal, we must seize opportunities to build back better with greater disability inclusion. COVID will not be the last crisis faced by our region -- the most populated and disaster-prone region in the world. Asia-Pacific governments must sustain the momentum in mainstreaming disability inclusion as they shift gears from emergency response to longer-term policy planning.

The success of countries in building back better -- and more inclusively -- will depend on the adoption of a whole-of-society approach. The meaningful participation of people with disabilities in issues affecting them, including representation in decision-making mechanisms, will be critical.

Policies concerning people with disabilities cannot be effective without their input. Partnerships with people with disabilities and their organizations, as well as private sector entities, will be key to ensuring effective policy implementation and service delivery, particularly at the grassroots and community levels. Within government, coordination across ministries and administrative levels will also be crucial to ensure disability inclusion policies are coherent and mainstreamed throughout the public sector.

A visually impaired student takes an online class in Noida on Oct. 12: policies concerning people with disabilities cannot be effective without their input.   © Hindustan Times/Getty Images

Countries can only protect and empower people with disabilities when they have accurate, timely and relevant data to inform decision-making, especially in crisis situations. Data gaps rendered many people with disabilities invisible from early COVID responses. Governments must strengthen their statistical systems to collect and integrate disability-disaggregated data that are comparable and interoperable across sectors and administrative levels.

The pandemic shows that the digital technologies allowing entire populations to work, learn and operate remotely are here to stay. We now need to ensure that these technologies are inclusive and accessible for people with disabilities. As a first step, policies on information accessibility should align with international guidelines and standards and offer incentives for the private sector to apply them.

To ensure a more resilient and disability-inclusive post COVID world, governments should adopt a twin-track approach to disability-inclusion. Systems and institutions must be reformed in order to mainstream disability concerns into policies across all sectors -- education, social protection, labor, infrastructure development, and disaster risk reduction, to ensure they are inclusive and accessible. At the same time, focused disability-specific interventions and services must meet the diverse and specific needs of people with disabilities.

The Asia Pacific region has been a global leader in promoting disability inclusion for over 30 years. The Incheon Strategy to "Make the Right Real" for persons with disabilities in Asia and the Pacific, adopted by all ESCAP member States in 2013, comprises the world's first set of disability-specific development goals. It has helped countries progress toward the realization of disability rights and disability-inclusive development for close to a decade.

Countries now have the opportunity to demonstrate this commitment once again. At ESCAP, we will continue working closely with our member states, the private sector and people with disabilities and their organizations to make the right real, as we build back better in the post-COVID world.

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