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Little boy in a wheelchair smiling

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The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed and exacerbated the exclusion faced by the 690 million persons living with disabilities in the Asia-Pacific region. In initial responses to the pandemic, there was a serious risk that the needs of persons with disabilities would be overlooked. Lockdowns and fears of infection left persons 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 persons with disabilities missed out on critical information about COVID-19 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 today, we celebrate the resilience of persons with disabilities in Asia-Pacific 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 in Asia-Pacific have started taking action, in partnership with organizations of persons with disabilities and other stakeholders, to ensure that COVID-19 responses address the specific needs of persons with disabilities. New research by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) shows that at least 44 governments in our region have developed COVID-19 responses concerning persons with disabilities.

Interventions have been diverse, from disseminating accessible COVID-19 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 persons 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-19 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 persons with disabilities in issues affecting them, including representation in decision-making mechanisms, will be critical.

Policies concerning persons with disabilities cannot be effective without their input. Partnerships with persons 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.

Countries can only protect and empower persons with disabilities when they have accurate, timely and relevant data to inform decision-making, especially in crisis situations. Data gaps rendered many persons with disabilities invisible from early COVID-19 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 persons 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-19 world, Governments should adopt a twin- track approach to disability-inclusion. Systems and institutions must be reformed to mainstream disability concerns into policies across all sectors – education, social protection, labour, 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 persons 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 towards 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 persons with disabilities and their organizations to make the right real, as we build back better in the post COVID-19 world.


This op-ed was first published in the Nikkei Asian Review:


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Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana
United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Executive Secretary of the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP)
Social Development +66 2 288-1234 [email protected]