It is overwhelming to be living with a deadly pandemic. It is a surprise how much we have already accepted as the new normal. When the lockdown first began to take effect, social media was flooded with stories of families experiencing anxiety over parenting during the pandemic. It is disheartening to watch a child grow subdued from being separated from learning and socializing in their comfort zones. It is impossible to fathom how children with disabilities and their parents are coping in this situation.
One hundred and eighty-eight countries had imposed countrywide school closures which had an estimated impact on more than 1.5 billion children and adolescents. The Bangladesh Bureau of Education Information and Statistics has projected that school dropouts will increase to 45 percent in 2021. This will directly feed into the climbing rates of child labour and child marriage.
Disability is a sensitive topic in Bangladesh, but nonetheless crucial to discuss, given how much this pandemic hampered the progress for children with disabilities compared to that of other children. Children with disabilities in Bangladesh, especially girls, have been denied dignity long before the pandemic and will have to be given special attention for them to get a chance at equitable opportunities.
The term disability itself is inadequate to capture the experiences of children and adults living with a multitude of conditions. Each situation is unique and needs different approach; and our state resources cannot begin to measure it in order to tailor specific solutions. But at the core is the willingness to talk about this issue so that proper measures for care can be formulated.
Since the Rights of Disabled Persons’ Act was enacted in 2013, there has been some progress in the rights of children with disabilities. NGOs began programs that educated parents, teachers, and caregivers on sensitive language and teaching methods that met the needs of children with disabilities. But the majority of programs are currently geared towards adults with disabilities who have more agencies. It is essential to direct resources towards children with disabilities because it will empower them to pursue their rights and not get ingrained with the negative perception of disability. It is also urgent to enable counselling for parents on the importance of children with disabilities to get proper education, healthcare, and the support they need to become self-sufficient and live with dignity. With COVID-19 risk and restrictions still pronounced in how we conduct our lives now, the tragedy lies in the reversal of this progress that already started too little too late.
According to UNICEF, Bangladesh is likely to go into a recession leading to household incomes falling by an average of 19 percent. The unemployment rate is also predicted to rise exponentially. While the government’s response plan provides solutions for those most impacted by the pandemic, it does not specify what exact solutions are available for protecting children with disabilities.
In a census taken in 2011, roughly 3 million children were estimated to be living with some forms of disability. Prior to the pandemic, child enrolment in primary education was 97 percent but only 11 percent were children with disabilities (UNICEF, 2014). The pandemic has given us an opportunity to address the needs of these children and attempt to change the social perception around disability. Children must be central to the policies that will be enacted in the post-COVID era to address these structural inequalities.
The pandemic has made inequalities within our social structure more evident, and the disproportionality has continued in health services distribution and other significant areas. It is crucial to address this so that the world that emerges from this crisis better accommodates the most vulnerable groups. Helping them overcome their obstacles, both physical and psychological, empowers them to strive towards a life of dignity, something that falls within all of our rights as human beings.
The writer is a Communication Specialist, Publications and Humanitarian Emergency Affairs, World Vision Bangladesh. Email: [email protected]