The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the lives of most people on earth in one way or another. Each has been forced to grapple with its effects, both individually and collectively.
The negative societal effects COVID-19 has wrought all over the world have, in many cases, been even more profound when viewed through the lens of persons with impairments in fragile contexts and humanitarian settings.
In Rwanda, they face some problems whose reasons they think are related to the lack of access to enough, public right and on time health information, significant barriers to implement basic hygiene measures, and inaccessible health facilities as far as curbing the spread of the pandemic is concerned.
Some people with hearing, speech and mental impairments have faced the challenge of not getting enough information about the epidemic.
For Pauline Umwari, a deaf who lives in Muhanga district, wearing a mask is the most disturbing thing. “I feel better when I look at how someone’s lips behave when we talk. So it’s not easy to get information about this epidemic.”
She adds that she knew of its outbreak late when she saw no one was present around her usual place of residence when begging in Muhanga town. “I live alone, and there is no special way for the government to provide us with such important information. Information is provided in general,” she said.
Jeremiah Sikubwabo has a physical disability. He has one leg, he can’t see or hear and talk, but his eyes look normal to someone who doesn’t know him. To communicate with him, it is necessary to use the writing in Brail. He tells how, on the way to Kabgayi hospital, he was about to be in conflict with a chief (he did not know him).
“The child who was accompanying me was going to the toilet, and I was standing by the side of the road. The leader came and started asking me why I was not wearing a mask (that’s what they explained to him later). He saw me not answering and yet I seem to see. He could not know whether I do not even understand. If the child had not appeared soon enough to tell them that we didn’t know it was a law, I would have had a problem.” Sikubwabo says they used to be able to get information quickly while still in their Twitezimbere cooperative.
Symphorien Sibomana is deaf and dumb too. He lives in a house that he says it was built by philanthropists in Nyamabuye sector in Muhanga district. He stays with a boy who is in P5. At home, there is no radio, no television, nothing else to help him know the information.
“I don’t get the instructions from the government as soon as the others do.“When I don’t find where I can follow information on RTV (Rwanda TV) I don’t know anything about as it’s the unique media that is trying to use sign language even though it’s not in all the radio shows. The news arrives to us lately”, he added.
Most of the deaf population have low literacy levels, meaning they can’t read well and during COVID-19, they rely completely on the signed information (videos and infographics). Otherwise, they are not informed about. Seth Karima, a deaf and dump man met at the market of Muhanga said he can access official information on COVID-19 in written form, mainly through newspapers, Twitter, WhatsApp and official government websites. However,“I would like the Rwanda TV to provide live and Closed Captions in news, press conferences and other programs broadcasted on TV. Also the screen that shows the sign interpreter is too small”, he recommended.
Seth’s father and brother have been helping and supporting him during COVID-19 as they live in the same house but he is aware that not many deaf individuals can count on family members. “Not all the families of the deaf are supportive and helpful like mine” he says.
The National Union of Disability Organizations in Rwanda (NUDOR) recognizes that there are barriers for people with disabilities. “There is even a deaf employee of NUDOR who was taken to the stadium without knowing what it was about, when he was going to file a complaint with the police and instead of being served, he was treated like a curfew breaker,” declares Emile Vuningabo, the staff member.
To help them, NUDOR is trying to translate anti-Covid-19 messages, and put them in a format that is accessible for people with impairments. “We put them in the video with subtitles, and broadcast them on television with a sign interpreter,” they say.
Inclusive information system
“The government ought to do their best to ensure that we all are guided by facts and solid information and that all people get the information and services they need,” said Mahoro Pascal, a 30-year-old deaf.
According to him, we must ensure that all information related to the crisis is accessible. This includes public health information to prevent, detect and treat COVID-19 and information on measures implemented by governments to address and mitigate the socio-economic impacts of the pandemic, to ensure that people with disabilities can be informed of the rights they can access in the context of the crisis and in times of recovery. This information should be made available in sign language and in simple, easy-to-read language, and in accessible media, modes and formats, including digital technology, closed captions, relay services and text messages.
The National Council of People with Disabilities (NCPD) in Rwanda recently advocated for inclusive communication of measures and guidelines in the continued fight against the spread of the coronavirus, including all broadcasting channels in the country to use sign language interpreters for the message to spread among the community of people living with disabilities.
“There is an urgent need for people living with disabilities to access information, updates and news at the right time. We are going to partner with all platforms, especially the media so that people with disabilities can be informed with what is taking place.” Said Emmanuel Ndayisaba, NCPD Executive Secretary cited by https://rwanda.unfpa.org/
When launching the Policy Brief on Persons with Disabilities and COVID-19 (6 May 2020), the UN Secretary-General Antonio Gutiérrez highlighted that the response and recovery should be disability-inclusive, protect the rights and needs of persons with disabilities and place them at the center of all efforts, as envisaged in the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.