The COVID-19 pandemic has had uneven economic, social, psychological and health impacts. It has magnified existing inequalities, including those experienced by people with disability.
A 2020 national rapid assessment of the impact of the pandemic on people with disability in 32 provinces in Indonesia showed nearly 90% of the 1,683 respondents experienced an income drop of a staggering 80%. Many were at a higher risk for certain diseases.
That assessment also demonstrated how the government has been less active in involving people with disability in mitigating the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Despite the dangers and the limited facilities provided by the government, our most recent research, funded by the Australia-Indonesia Centre, finds that some people with disability and their organisations in South Sulawesi implemented innovative coping strategies to survive during the pandemic.
From November 2020 to January 2021, we conducted this research in three distinct areas of South Sulawesi – urban (Makassar), peri-urban (Gowa) and rural (Bulukumba).
We chose South Sulawesi because the province recorded the most COVID-19 cases in Sulawesi island during 2020 to early 2021.
Our research shows many people with disability were creative and resilient in the absence of more substantial government support. They devised their own coping strategies to face the challenges of the pandemic.
We spoke with 86 people, including men and women with disability, alongside stakeholders, a mixture of community leaders (formal and informal), government officers involved with disability services and policymakers. The Indonesian Disability Movement for Equality, PerDIK (Pergerakan Difabel Indonesia untuk Kesetaraan), and its members and networks provided expertise in inclusive design and data collection.
We identified at least two coping methods in South Sulawesi.
1. Creative communication
Many women and men living with disability in South Sulawesi developed innovative disability-specific strategies for overcoming communication barriers.
Information about COVID-19 was not consistently provided in accessible formats. Television broadcasts often lacked sign language interpreters and subtitles. Communication between people also became more difficult. As Fadhlan (not a real name) explained:
“During the pandemic, we are obliged to wear a mask. It is such a constraint to me because it hinders me in reading lip movements and communicating […]. They have difficulty in understanding my needs and not everybody wants to take off their masks when speaking to me.”
Those like Fadhlan who rely on lip-reading responded to mask wearing by cultivating other communication methods. Often they used mobile phones in novel ways such as through text messaging, transcription applications or web captioners.
2. Community support
The second strategy was to ask for and accept help from extended family members, employers and the community. This help took the form of daily assistance, food, financial and communication support.
Several people with disability mentioned they supported other people living with disability during COVID-19. Support was often targeted, with people in a disability community helping address the particular challenges that community faces. One of them is Nurul, who said:
“There was a child who had leprosy (my neighbour). I took medicine for the child at the health centre. There was also a person in X street who asked me for help. She has graduated from high school, but doesn’t have a vehicle, so we […] help her to the healthcare centre […]”
The resilience and active participation of people with disability in community development during the pandemic was a core finding of our report.
Our research contribution
Our findings show how the pandemic has worsened the living standards of women and men with disability. They also show how the restrictions imposed during the pandemic – which created a sense of isolation – impacted participants’ mental health.
Our research attempts to build on prior studies through its choice of methodology and theory.
Our research utilises a social model approach, which takes a rights-based view of people with disability. The social model considers disability not as biological “abnormality” or “deficiency” that must be fixed or treated, but as the result of the oppressive ways in which society is organised and operates.
This model also positions people with disability as citizens who have basic rights and are worthy of respect. This approach values people with disability in their relations with the wider community and various institutions including state institutions. In this way, people with disability are viewed as active and agentic, in contrast to common misconceptions of people with disability as passive and burdensome.
A gender perspective also allowed us to better understand how women with disability were disproportionately affected. The women we spoke to reported that COVID introduced new physical and financial obstacles to accessing basic necessities, including education and health services.
Worldwide, we know that the COVID-19 pandemic has magnified systemic barriers to equality and inclusion for women and girls with disability.
Our qualitative approach, the social model and a broad gender perspective allowed our research to capture the concerns of people with disabilities in a more dynamic manner. This highlighted the various impacts of social interactions, including oppression and marginalisation.
So, what’s next?
Despite the dynamic coping strategies used by people with disability, the stories of many of our respondents suggest government support is still relatively limited.
Many people, particularly women with disability, did not receive direct cash support during the pandemic.
Government support for people with a disability in South Sulawesi during the pandemic was inconsistent and inadequate. There was poor communication about what support was available. People often only found out about it through third parties.
Disability-specific data collection is also inadequate in South Sulawesi. This made it unclear what needs people with disability may have, and how many people might require assistance.
To overcome this, our research provides several recommendations to government to ensure people with disability have access to basic necessities and have their rights upheld during the pandemic:
improve communication methods so the delivery of critical information on health and safety includes the needs of those with speech, hearing or sight impairments
expand government subsidy schemes to ensure people with disability have access to basic services such as water, electricity and communications
collect comprehensive data to better target the distribution of aid and organisational support
liaise with disabled people’s organisations that are bearing the load and underpin their efforts with funding and training.
The government can strengthen policies and programs to ensure the COVID-19 pandemic and future emergencies do not disproportionately impact people with disability – especially women with disability.
PerDIK’s associates, particularly Dr Ishak Salim and Syarif Ramadhan, as well as all interviewers and informants, played a critical role in the research.
Rafika Ramli, Ulil Ahsan, Amanda Pricella and Betrin Natasya, early-career researchers at Hasanuddin University’s Graduate School’s Center of Excellence for Interdisciplinary and Sustainability Studies (CEISS), assisted with the translation and first analysis of the interview data.
The Australian government supported this study through the Australia-Indonesia Centre’s PAIR initiative.
The Conversation Indonesia is supported in publishing this article by the Australia-Indonesia Centre.
Rachel Noorajavi translated this article from Indonesian.