COVID-19: No mechanism in place, persons with disabilities suffer in Bengal

Regular requirements of persons with disabilities were not being taken care of, according to district sources

By Sudarshana Chakraborty
Published: Friday 08 May 2020

The West Bengal government is allegedly not following disability inclusive COVID-19 guidelines — issued by the Centre on March 24 to ensure protection and safety of persons with disabilities — sources have said.

The guidelines issued by the Department of Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities under Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment state:

  • The state commissioner for persons with disabilities (PwDs) should be declared as the state nodal authority and should be the overall in-charge to resolve disability specific issues during this period. It will be their responsibility to ensure that all awareness materials, public restrictions orders and offered services are available in different accessible formats for people with different impairments.
  • The state commissioner for PwDs will co-ordinate with district collectors and officials; state disaster management authority, health, police and other departments to keep check on how issues of such persons are being dealt with.
  • The district officer dealing with empowerment of PwDs and declared as the district nodal authority should have a list of PwDs and keep a check on their requirements on regular intervals. There should be a separate list of persons with severe disability/ies.

The entire aforementioned mechanism is missing in West Bengal, DTE has learnt.

The office of the commissioner for PwDs in the state has been set up under the Department of Women and Child Development and Social Welfare. But the state commissioner for PwDs, when contacted by DTE in this regard, refused to speak.

According to sources from different districts, the listing of persons with disabilities was not done by district officers and their requirements regarding essential medicines and daily necessities were not being taken care of. 

The guidelines also stated that a 24x7 helpline facility had to be set up exclusively for them, with facilities of sign language interpretation and video calling. But only a single-window COVID-19 helpline has been started so far. The state is not planning to start a separate helpline for such persons, the officer of state commissioner for PwDs confirmed.

When DTE called on one of the COVID-19 helpline numbers mentioned on the website of Health and Family Welfare Department, an officer on the condition of complete anonymity claimed the state has maintained a register of names, contact numbers and addresses of such persons.

On being asked if they were making note of people with disabilities separately, the officer vaguely agreed. He said that arrangements were being made to assist all people.

According to the guidelines, all information regarding COVID-19, services offered and precautions should be available in local languages in accessible formats such as Braille, audible tapes, video-graphic material with subtitles and sign language interpretation.

None of the initiatives have been started so far in West Bengal. The government website continues to publish in three languages — Bengali, Hindi and English.

The state is currently not providing any online counseling to persons with disabilities and their families. Only one such helpline has been started by activists.

One of them, Shampa Sengupta, joint secretary of National Platform for Rights of the Disabled, said, “We are getting many calls from disabled persons, their family members/care givers, not only from West Bengal but also from other parts of the country. They are suffering from depression, anxiety and regular problems of everyday life in the absence of required assistance. Some of them have not received salary for their work.”

She added that her organisation started delivering ration to the disabled persons when the lockdown was announced, but with more restrictions in place, their resources have been cut short.

Badrujudah Sheikh, a person with disability who runs a small tailoring factory in Birbhum district, said, “The state is doing nothing to support us — neither at the district level nor in villages. No district official has collected any information about us. Village-level health workers are spreading awareness regarding COVID-19, but they themselves are not aware of disability-specific information material. How will they help?”

There are irregularities in disability pension schemes, activists claimed. They alleged that the state was not making advance payments as was directed by the Centre.

Most persons with disabilities have not received the monthly pension of Rs 1,000. Sheikh received his first pension in July 2019 and then the third one in the end of March 2020.

Several disabled persons who are getting their dues are unable to go to banks or ATMs to collect it.

Jishu Debnath, a visually impaired person, said, “What if a disabled person tests positive for the virus? We do not know if the state has any specific arrangement for testing and treatment of disabled persons. We need different assistance at various levels. Are there enough arrangements for such patients at the quarantine centers?”

Somen Dutta, another visually impaired person, pointed out local police stations did not know how to respond to a call for help from disabled persons. “Regular therapy or medical intervention has stopped for many of us,” he said.

Kanti Ganguly, former state minister and founder member of Pashchim Banga Rajya Pratibandhi Sammilani (PBRPS), an organization working for the rights and demands of disabled persons, said they will soon write to the Chief Minister.

“State government must take separate measures for testing and treating disabled persons. There should be separate counters for them in general hospitals, the advance pension to be paid as soon as possible etc,” he said.

He added the organization is ensuring emergency medicines for everyone in Kolkata, North and South 24 Parganas, Howrah & Hoogly. 

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