Access to information on COVID-19 is crucial to Persons with Disabilities in Africa

With the current Covid-19 pandemic ravaging the world, there is growing concern that critical messages about the corona virus that are being broadcast by various health authorities, telecom companies, and broadcasters are not reaching persons with visual and hearing impairments.

African governments are using mass media such as radio and television, as well as information and communication technologies (ICT), particularly social media and mobile telephony platforms to create public awareness about the pandemic. Many countries have instituted a “lockdown” during which individuals may only leave their homes for essential reasons such as essential shopping and medical visits, and banned public meetings.

In South Africa, Vodacom and MTN are “zero-rating” information portals run by the country’s Department of Health, thereby allowing users access to vital information about the disease even if they do not have data bundles. Vodacom customers can get free vital information about the Covid-19 pandemic by visiting the website,

While the above is commendable, there is growing concern that some persons with disabilities are still being left behind in accessing information on Covid-19 due to the fact that, despite the recent expansion in the usage of ICT in the region, a large section of persons with disabilities faces digital exclusion due to lack of access and affordability of the requisite ICT tools and equipment, as well as failure by broadcasters and telecom operators to provide information and services in disability friendly formats.

In the wake of declaring Covid-19 a global pandemic, the WHO  issued guidelines to mitigate the impact of the outbreak on persons with disabilities. It called upon governments to take action to ensure that persons with disabilities are not left behind in the fight against Covid-19. Regarding Covid-19 public health information and communication,  the WHO urged governments to:

  • Include captioning and, where possible, sign language for all live and recorded events and communications. This includes national addresses, press briefings, and live social media. 
  • Convert public materials into “Easy Read” format so that they are accessible for people with intellectual disability or cognitive impairment. 
  • Develop accessible written information products by using appropriate document formats, (such as “Word”), with structured headings, large print, braille versions and formats for people who are deafblind. 
  • Include captions for images used within documents or on social media. Use images that are inclusive and do not stigmatise disability. 
  • Work with disability organisations, including advocacy bodies and disability service providers to disseminate public health information.

The International Disability Alliance (IDA) has also issued key recommendations towards a disability-inclusive Covid-19 response, including the requirement that persons with disabilities must receive information about infection mitigating tips, public restriction plans, and the services offered, in a diversity of accessible formats with use of accessible technologies.

African governments are obligated under both the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) and the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in Africa (ACHPER PD) to provide equal opportunities, accessibility and inclusion of persons with disabilities. Specifically, Article 9(b) of the CRPD requires states to take appropriate measures to ensure that persons with disabilities have access, on an equal basis with others, to information, communications and other services, including electronic services and emergency services.

Additionally, Article 25(b) of the CRPD requires states to take all appropriate measures to ensure access for persons with disabilities to health services (and information) that are gender-sensitive, including health-related rehabilitation.

Televised programmes that feature experts discussing Covid-19 should have sign language interpreters and transcriptions to enable persons with visual and hearing impairments to benefit from the expert knowledge.

In designing and disseminating Covid-19 related messages, telecom companies need to ensure that these are in multiple formats – including SMS, audio, visual and in disability friendly formats.

Adapted from the original article published on the website of APC member organisation Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA).

More information on Resources on Persons with Disabilities and COVID19 can be found on the UN Website.

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