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School-age children in Lebanon. Top photos, bottom left photo: © 2017 Amanda Bailly for Human Rights Watch. Bottom center and right photos: © 2017 Sam Koplewicz for Human Rights Watch

(Beirut) – Lebanon’s Covid-19 response has overlooked people with disabilities, who have not been provided with accessible information about the virus or consulted in preparing the government’s emergency response plans, Human Rights Watch said today.

People with disabilities are facing barriers in getting health care. Children with disabilities cannot access remote education on an equal basis with others, and families of children with disabilities do not have the support and services they need to help them cope with the crisis.

“The Lebanese government’s Covid-19 response has completely ignored the rights and needs of people with disabilities, who were marginalized long before the virus hit,” said Aya Majzoub, Lebanon researcher at Human Rights Watch. “This exclusion is robbing people with disabilities of potentially life-saving information and services that they need to weather this crisis.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed six disability rights activists and six parents of children with disabilities, all of whom said that the government’s Covid-19 response overlooked the specific needs of people with disabilities.

The government should ensure that health care is accessible to all, without discrimination. But it has not made arrangements for people with disabilities – who may frequently need health care – amid the lockdown and stay-at-home orders, despite requests by activists, the activists and parents said.

Sylvana Lakkis, president of the Lebanese Physical Handicapped Union, said that her organization has been receiving a large volume of calls from people with disabilities asking for help in getting necessary medication. She said that some who need respirators for underlying health conditions said they have become more difficult to find amid the restrictions.

Accessible information on the pandemic is essential for people to make life-saving decisions about how to protect themselves and to get necessities and services during quarantine and self-isolation. But the government’s television and social media information campaigns may not be accessible and none target people with disabilities, said Dr. Moussa Charafeddine, president of the Friends of the Disabled Association in Lebanon.

Private initiatives and international organizations like UNICEF have produced some material about Covid-19 that is accessible for people with disabilities, but many people with disabilities are still not getting life-saving information, said Fadia Farah from the Lebanese Association for Self-Advocacy (LASA) and Lakkis, of the Lebanese Physical Handicapped Union.

The government’s communication strategies should include qualified sign language interpretation for televised announcements, websites that are accessible to people with various disabilities, and telephone-based services that have text capabilities for people who are deaf or hard of hearing, Human Rights Watch said. Communications should use plain language to maximize understanding.

The government should urgently consult with disability-rights experts to identify potentially life-threatening gaps in its Covid-19 response, Human Rights Watch said. Officials had contacted just one of the six groups Human Rights Watch spoke to, the Learning Center for the Deaf, to draft a guide for municipalities on people with disabilities in the pandemic. But Human Rights Watch was unable to determine whether the guide was finalized or published.

Children with disabilities have also been disadvantaged by school and institution closures since February 29 that have mandated online or remote learning without accommodating the needs of children with disabilities. Most children with disabilities in Lebanon are denied enrollment in schools, and for the few who can enroll, schools lack reasonable accommodations to help them learn. Some schools have set up distance learning, but this teaching method is often not accessible or cannot accommodate the needs of children with disabilities.

Amer Makarem, from the Youth Association of the Blind, said that online classes and lessons are generally not accessible for students with visual disabilities. Some teachers are sending lessons on WhatsApp, sometimes as image files that are not accessible, he said. Nadine Ismail, from the Learning Center for the Deaf, said that remote learning is especially difficult for deaf children, who need large screens to focus and programs that allow a teacher to use sign language and show documents simultaneously.

Parents of children with developmental disabilities said that the private schools at which their children were enrolled were merely sending videos to watch at home and were not conducting one-on-one educational or therapy sessions that the children had in school. All the parents interviewed said that they had nowhere to turn for educational support.

Even before the pandemic, the government’s only option for the majority of children with disabilities was to enroll in one of about 100 specialized institutions funded by the Social Affairs Ministry. The ministry owes these institutions substantial payments, interfering with their ability to provide quality education, and the lack of government monitoring raises serious concerns about their ability, in some cases, to fulfill the children’s right to education.

Nonetheless, for many families the specialized institutions are the sole providers of learning and other services, including food and health care. Their closure has deprived children with disabilities and their families of these resources and services.

Disability rights advocates that operate some of these institutions said that the government had ordered them to close with no guidance on continuing their educational programming remotely. Dr. Weam Abou Hamdan, general director of the National Rehabilitation and Development Center, and Dr. Mousa Charafeddine, president of the Friends of the Disabled Association in Lebanon, which offers learning and rehabilitation services to children with intellectual disabilities, said that their institutions started distance learning programs on their own initiative.

Under both Lebanese and international law, all children should have access to a quality education without discrimination. The government should recognize the disproportionate impact school closures have on children with disabilities and engage in continuous social and policy discussion with educators and organizations of people with disabilities to assess needs and agree on education measures for students with various types of disabilities.

As the schools might be transitioning back to onsite learning starting June 1, the government should make equity a top priority, and include tools and guidance for schools to support students with disabilities and to provide remedial teaching. The government should also measure possible increases in drop-out rates of children with disabilities and work with advocacy organizations to ensure children return.

“The Lebanese government should urgently take into account the needs of people with disabilities,” Majzoub said. “This includes making sure they have access to information, health care, and the resources children with disabilities need to continue their education, while taking meaningful steps to make schools more inclusive.”

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