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FEATURE STORY December 1, 2020

A More Accessible and Sustainable World: A Disability-inclusive Response to COVID-19


December 3 is International Day of Persons with Disabilities. Photo credit: Shutterstock


  • Facing the COVID-19 pandemic, the more than 1 billion people worldwide living with disabilities are experiencing greater difficulty accessing vital services and opportunities in education and employment.
  • Without a disability-informed approach to recovery, persons with disabilities are at increased risk of being further left behind and falling into poverty.
  • On this International Day of Persons with Disabilities, observed on December 3, the World Bank reaffirms its commitment to helping reduce barriers to inclusion and promote equality of opportunity, including for persons with disabilities.

“There is no doubt COVID-19 affected our lives this past year. Most of us spent it in quarantine, not being able to get out,” says Hassan Sedky, a global disability activist and Egyptian founder of a non-profit development organization that helps to integrate persons with disabilities. “But... if you’re a disabled person in a developing country, you are spending your life in your house not being able to get out, because the environment around you is not accessible... or does not accept you for your disability.”

Sedky is not alone in feeling this way.

He is one of more than 1 billion people globally who are estimated to have a disability. Most live in developing countries and are among the most excluded groups in our society. Persons with disabilities often find it tough to access services, education, or employment opportunities. As a result, they are less likely to participate in the economy, which in turn drives them to poverty.

The global COVID-19 crisis is worsening these inequalities and exposing the deep fault lines of exclusion that already exist. Without an inclusive approach to recovery, one which considers the disproportionate impact that COVID has on persons with disabilities, this population is at risk of being left behind.

Challenges emerging from the pandemic include dangerous care home settings, increased domestic violence and discrimination in healthcare and social environments, which can include access to information. The wider digital divide has made learning difficult for those with disabilities, especially those already living below the poverty line.

As the crisis continues to have wide-reaching impacts, one question stands out: how can we address the long-standing systemic inequalities it has laid bare?

This year’s International Day of Persons with Disabilities theme - ‘Building Back Better: Towards a More Disability-Inclusive, Accessible and Sustainable Post-COVID World’ - poses that exact question. It aims to increase global awareness around disability inclusive development - which the Bank supports - especially in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Inclusion means empowering all to participate in, and benefit from, the development process, and is critical for the Bank’s development interventions. This approach recognizes persons with disabilities as beneficiaries of all projects while also carrying out disability specific projects to address the main gaps to their inclusion.

“For me, a disability inclusive accessible and sustainable future is about inclusion of persons with disabilities in the social management response and recovery,” says Ashura Michael, another disability activist and youth leader. Michael, a deaf Kenyan, feels this is a vital part of achieving the pledge of “leaving no one behind.”

At the core of the World Bank’s work is the inclusion of the most vulnerable, including persons with disabilities. During the Global Disability Summit in 2018, the World Bank announced a set of ten commitments on disability inclusion. These commitments include ensuring that all Bank education projects are disability-inclusive by 2025, increasing the number of staff with disabilities at the Bank, and promoting the Disability Inclusion and Accountability Framework. Under the Environmental and Social Framework (ESF), the Bank has strengthened its promise to fight discrimination and prejudice, specifically for vulnerable or disadvantaged groups. The IDA19 financing package, which is the World Bank’s fund for the poorest, makes six policy commitments on disability and is a chance to guarantee the inclusion of persons with disabilities in Bank projects.

A number of actions has been taken by the Bank to support persons with disabilities during this crisis, including an issues paper that outlines the disproportionate impact experienced by children with disabilities. Bearing in mind these risks, projects have been inclusive of persons with disabilities under the ESF, as has the Bank’s targeting of social protection schemes. The Bank is also working with partners to develop disability-inclusive checklists for COVID-19 projects and providing guidance on how to build back with persons with disabilities in mind. In sum, the Bank is deploying analytical tools and resources for decisionmakers and communities around the world to craft better policies for better lives for persons with disabilities.

While COVID-19 has created a human crisis of unprecedented scale, it also presents an opportunity to reimagine disability inclusion.

“For the first time, the world has experienced self-isolation. Being a wheelchair user myself for the past 12 years, I know exactly how it feels,” says Muniba Mazari, a disability champion and UN Women Goodwill Ambassador from Pakistan. “Let’s be more kind and be more accepting towards one another. Now is the time to be more considerate and more empathetic.”