Press Release

The IACHR Calls on States to Provide Comprehensive Protection for the Lives of People with Disabilities During the COVID-19 Pandemic

April 8, 2020

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Washington, D.C. - As part of the work of the Rapid and Integrated Response Coordination Unit for the COVID-19 pandemic crisis (SACROI COVID-19), the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) urged states to adopt measures to protect the rights of people with disabilities. The pandemic is causing an intensification in the discrimination that this group has historically faced in fully exercising its rights, which requires states to adopt the necessary measures to protect these people’s life and integrity and guarantee them access to their rights on an equal basis with all other people.

The IACHR has already pointed out that people living with disabilities are more likely to experience discrimination which results in poorer health and greater difficulty in accessing appropriate care to meet their specific needs, among other things. This situation could be seriously exacerbated as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. For this reason, the IACHR called on states to guarantee the right to health for all people with disabilities free from any kind of discrimination as a result of their condition. To achieve this, changes to the physical configuration and capacity of healthcare facilities and services need to be made in response to their specific protection needs. In particular, given the potential effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, states must develop care protocols that anticipate the possible rationing of medical resources to ensure that people with disabilities have timely, appropriate, nondiscriminatory access to healthcare. Given the nature of the pandemic and the measures to contain it, special attention should be paid to the mental health of people with psychosocial disabilities.

The IACHR emphasized that people with disabilities who are deprived of their liberty—be it in prisons, psychiatric hospitals, or other social assistance institutions—are particularly at risk of catching COVID-19. Based on the information documented through its various monitoring mechanisms, the IACHR has observed that these centers for the deprivation of liberty generally entail overcrowding, lack of adequate hygiene, negligent medical care, and substandard nutrition. In this regard, the IACHR noted that states have a special duty to protect people with disabilities who are deprived of their liberty. In the current context, states must ensure that conditions at detention facilities prevent the transmission of COVID-19 and provide adequate care to treat any infections that do occur.

The IACHR is aware that there is a lack of communication support and information in clear, simple language on the pandemic. This may have a detrimental effect on people with disabilities adopting essential prevention and self-care measures. As a consequence, the IACHR deemed that access to information is essential for this group to be able to take preventive measures and seek treatment on an equal footing with other people. For this reason, states must provide accessible, timely, clear information on COVID-19 in general, how it develops, and how it can be prevented and treated. To achieve this, they need to adopt communication strategies that include sign language and accessible websites, among other things.

Finally, in view of the new disability paradigms, the IACHR reiterated the importance of involving people with disabilities in processes concerning their rights, which would make them and their specific needs more visible. As a consequence, states must adopt measures that seek to involve people with disabilities in the design, implementation, communication, and monitoring of measures to contain and address the pandemic, taking its particular effects on this group into account.

In view of this, and in order to protect the rights of people with disabilities, regardless of whether or not they are being deprived of their liberty, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the IACHR recommended that states:

• Take the necessary measures to ensure that people with disabilities have discrimination-free access to medical care, including when medical resources are rationed.

• Take preventive health and hygiene measures to prevent the transmission of the disease among those who are deprived of their liberty and provide adequate treatment should they become infected. States should do so in accordance with the guidelines published by the World Health Organization and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, taking a differentiated approach to protection for this population.

• Adopt measures to address overcrowding in prisons, such as prioritizing the use of alternative measures by reassessing cases of pretrial detention. With regard to people with disabilities in psychiatric institutions and social care facilities, states should step up efforts to develop and establish community-based services that meet the needs of patients within their community and thus avoid institutionalizing them.

• Adopt appropriate communication strategies to provide information on the development of the pandemic, prevention, and treatment in accessible formats.

• Ensure that people with disabilities are involved in the design, implementation, and monitoring of measures adopted in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

A principal, autonomous body of the Organization of American States (OAS), the IACHR derives its mandate from the OAS Charter and the American Convention on Human Rights. The Inter-American Commission has a mandate to promote respect for and to defend human rights in the region and acts as a consultative body to the OAS in this area. The Commission is composed of seven independent members who are elected in an individual capacity by the OAS General Assembly and who do not represent their countries of origin or residence.

No. 071/20