Leaving no one behind: helping people with disabilities during COVID-19

18 August 2020

Yelena Ryzhikh goes on work-related missions five or six times a day. She works as a sign language interpreter at “Umyt” Public Foundation Support Centre for People with Hearing Impairments in Almaty.

“People with disabilities always need medical services, especially now during the pandemic. Many of them have chronic diseases that require regular health screenings. I know that many of these people before the quarantine hadn’t been able to update their IDs and other documents without which one can’t go to a hospital, obtain a benefit, or get a pension,” said Yelena Ryzhikh.

People with hearing loss use both sign language and lip-reading. Understanding and general communication became a challenge for those with hearing disorders when COVID-19 broke out and everyone started wearing masks.

“One and the same sign may mean different meanings. For example, words like “orphan”, “jam” or “odd” are communicated with the same sign, - said Yelena, - Therefore, if lower part of the face is covered with a mask and one cannot lip-read, then communicating based only on signs is very tricky.”

As per the latest available government statistics, there are 705,500 people in Kazakhstan registered with a disability, including 309,500 women[1].  This is 3.9% of the country’s population. UNFPA National Coordinator on Population, Development and Gender Gaziza Moldakulova says that people with hearing impairments are more vulnerable when it comes to access to information about the coronavirus disease.

“While the proportion of people with other forms of disabilities who are unaware of COVID-19 doesn’t exceed 16,7%, the main proportion (88,9%) is comprised of those with hearing disorders or hearing loss, - says Gaziza Moldakulova, - this situation arises due to the lack of information in the mass and social media in the formats that would be suitable for people with disabilities and tailored for their understanding.”  

The Public Foundation “Association of Women with Disabilities Shyrak” in partnership with UNFPA have equipped Kazakhstan’s professional sign language interpreters with special transparent face shields. By putting such a device on, a sign language interpreter is able to communicate with a person with a hearing disability while maintaining the needed physical distance and minimizing any possibility of infection.

According to Yelena, transparent face shields help sign language interpreters provide timely - and at times vital – support to people with disabilities.

Yelena’s recent clients were a fairly young couple with hereditary hearing loss. The couple had a baby two months ago. Shortly after that the couple started to suspect that the child couldn’t see well. The parents were literally a bundle of nerves: it’s a known fact that if parents can’t hear and their child has a poor vision, it’s practically impossible for them to establish a contact.

“The mother of the child turned to our Foundation and we started looking for a solution together. I went with the worried parents from one clinic to another, says Yelena Ryzhikh, - until we finally found that the girl does have vision problems, but, thank God, she can see, there’s no blindness. You can’t imagine what a relief it was for the parents.”

Apart from the fact that during the pandemic people with disabilities find themselves cut off from the usual stream of information, they also lack the vitally important knowledge which makes them vulnerable to other problems, especially those associated with violence. According to a survey conducted before COVID-19, half of the people with disabilities in Kazakhstan reported experiencing various forms of violence from family members. A recent desk review and in-depth survey among people with disabilities showed that their relationships within families had deteriorated during the pandemic.

“38% of those surveyed said that their relationships with family members had become worse under lockdown. The reasons cited for this are a loss of jobs and incomes leading to the deterioration of the financial situation. The other reasons include fear and panic amid uncertainty about the future,” said Gaziza Moldakulova. – Furthermore, 72% respondents said that if faced with violence they wouldn’t turn for help to the police, medical or social workers or to other facilities. People with hearing loss can communicate with the representatives of various facilities only through a sign language interpreter, which limits their quick access to services of protection and response to violence,” said the expert.

As is known, there are no medicines to date that have been shown to prevent or cure the coronavirus disease. We do, however, know more about the COVID-19 virus than we did at the beginning of the year: research is a non-stop process. Naturally, an uncertainty like this one is accompanied by rumors, conjectures and invented "fake" news. Even a new word “infodemic” has been coined (the pandemic of misinformation). As many say, infodemic can be even more dangerous than the deadly virus: we have all read about “snake oil” methods of curing COVID-19, which in reality can only do harm.  During infodemic access of people with disabilities to information is important as never before: information for these people should be in the formats adapted for their use, be timely and come from reliable sources.

The National Commission for Women, Family and Demographic Policy under the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan with support from UNFPA and the Public foundation “Association of women with disabilities “Shyrak” developed videos with sign language interpretation informing how one can protect themselves from the virus, what steps to take before leaving or returning home, how to protect vulnerable people and what to do if faced with violence.

“The situation with COVID-19 teaches us to take care not only of oneself, but of those around us. Sign language interpreters are people on the frontline providing services to people with hearing disabilities. Our “Association of women with disabilities “Shyrak” became a partner of UNFPA in these initiatives on preventing COVID-19 among people with disabilities. Special transparent face shields and videos for people with disabilities is a step towards a society where everyone can receive information in a timely manner and, as we can see, this can help keep people healthy and save lives,” said the Chairperson of the “Association of women with disabilities “Shyrak” Lyazzat Kaltayeva.