Lesson learned from Covid-19: Disability is socially constructed phenomenon

This is a blog post by Subodha Handhi and Dr Abeer Hassan from University of the West of Scotland on how the parallels between social isolation from covid and the struggles of disabled people worldwide.

The proportion of disabled[1] people is rising, and it is estimated that ONE billion people (15% of the population) is disabled according to the World report on disability (World Report on Disability, 2011). Disability is much more common in low and middle-income countries. There are many definitions of disability. However, we focus on disability from the Social Model perspective. The Social Model, according to Professor Mike Oliver who coined the phrase in early 1980’s, is a specific focus on the various social forces or barriers such as economic, political, social, cultural which results in disabled peoples disadvantage poverty and oppression. In other words, the social model of disability is “a tool with which to provide insights into the disabling tendencies of modern society in order to generate policies and practices to facilitate their eradication” (Barnes, 2012 p.12).  

Today the most widely discussed topic globally on news and social media is the “The impact of the nationwide lockdown on mental health as a result of covid-19”. Let’s all pause for a while and think about this!

For many disabled people especially in developing countries, this daily isolation, marginalization, exclusion is part of their normal routine and day-to-day life. Family embarrassment, stigma, lack of literacy, dearth of communication, and limited mobility has discouraged many disabled people in emerging economies to have any sort of contact with outside world.  Most of them have been quarantined already since birth because non-disabled people believe that disabled people are contagious. We saw on social media that many people compared self-isolation during the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak to the lives of animals in captivity. There were many posts and many people were talking about the animal rights and situation animals faced while trapped in zoos, cages etc. Did anyone think about disabled children, girls, women, men who are constantly discriminated or abused and have no right to go out or live their life the way they want.

We acknowledge the prompt response from almost all the countries in the world to the impact of this horrible virus and taking immediate actions to protect the citizens. Many schools have prepared home learning packs for children, dedicated shopping hours for vulnerable and those people who work on the front line. Countries all over the world have managed to construct and implement a brand-new systems that might take a considerable amount of time under normal circumstances, which we thought impossible. We are amazed how quickly these changes happened and how hard leaders all over the world worked to bring some hope to their citizens. Many businesses around the world proved that they can still succeed while their staff working from home.
However, there are still a number of questions:

 “Why was working from home not an option for those people who lost their jobs due to their impairments”.

“Why do governments fail to empower disabled people?”

 “Why is it so hard for disabled people to integrate into the mainstream society?”

“Why is it so hard to implement home learning mode for disabled children who cannot attend school?”

“What initiatives have been taken by governments to hurdle the obstacles faced by disabled people to be part of any society?”

We witness that when whole society is affected, barriers to inclusion or barriers that prevents doing daily tasks are immediately sorted. It seems like there is a solution for everything and “Barriers” overcome quickly.  If the leaders all over the world can implement strategies that benefits large part of the population in such a short time, then, it’s time to do the same for the people who are disabled as a result of social forces.
What did Covid 19 teach us?

Covid-19 taught us a huge lesson that “everything and anything can be changed and we should not take anything for granted”. It made us think that term “Disability” is not related to “impairments”, but it is a “socially constructed phenomenon”.

Is it the time for the society to understand the importance of inclusion of disabled people as part of the society.

 As the majority of the world has experienced what social isolation feels like and tasted the pain of it, we shouldn’t repeat the same mistake and ensure that “no one will be left behind” and to “endeavour to reach the furthest behind first” (United Nation, 2015).
Barnes, C. (2012) The social model of disability: valuable or irrelevant? In Watson, N., Roulstone, A. and Thomas, C. (eds) The Routledge Handbook of Disability Studies. London: Routledge. http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=
Date accessed: April 16, 2020
“2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development” https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/post2015/transformingourworld
Date accessed: April 16, 2020
World Health Organization, “World Report on Disability”, 2011.
Date accessed: April 12, 2020

[1] We used the term “disabled people” to reflect the work is synonymous with the social model of disability and also we recognized disability more as a social and discursive construction
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