The COVID-19 Pandemic and Rights of Persons with Disabilities

2 July 2020, 11:45 a.m.

(Disponible en français : La pandémie de COVID-19 et les droits des personnes handicapées)

The COVID-19 pandemic presents multiple risks to the rights and wellbeing of persons with disabilities.

Approximately 6.2 million Canadians over the age of 15 live with one or more disabilities. Although definitions vary, the Accessible Canada Act indicates that a disability exists when a person’s impairments interact with barriers in a way that hinders full and equal participation in society.

Persons with disabilities are a diverse group with a wide range of abilities and needs. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (the Convention) – which Canada ratified in 2010 – guarantees their enjoyment of such rights as those to “full and effective participation and inclusion in society” and to “the highest attainable standard of health without discrimination.” In situations of risk, member states also have an obligation under Article 11 of the Convention to take “all necessary measures to ensure the protection and safety of persons with disabilities.”

These and other rights found in the Convention and in domestic human rights laws are threatened by the pandemic in several ways. This HillNote outlines some of the challenges facing persons with disabilities in Canada during the pandemic, and the potential impact on the health-related and inclusion-related rights of such persons. It will also highlight some positive measures that have been identified both in Canada and internationally to help fulfill state obligations, including Canada’s COVID-19 Disability Advisory Group.

Health-Related Rights

Section 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (the Charter), domestic human rights legislation, and the Convention prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability in Canada. In the healthcare context, such discrimination may arise if medical triage and priority-setting guidelines unfairly devalue the lives of persons with disabilities by giving them lower priority for medical care.

In a 24 March 2020 list of recommendations to the federal government, a coalition of disability-related organizations in Canada called for issuing a national values statement that would include an explicit affirmation of the right to non-discrimination in the context of medical triage.

Beyond ensuring a lack of discrimination, Canada also has obligations under the Convention to ensure that people with disabilities have the highest attainable standard of health. The pandemic presents several health-related risks for many persons with disabilities.

Firstly, they may require continual access to health services related to their disability, which may be disrupted due to strains on the healthcare system or postponed due to fear of infection.

Further, persons with disabilities may experience barriers to accessing public health information. The UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities has advised in the context of the pandemic that “information from national health authorities must be made available to the public in sign language and accessible means, modes and formats, including accessible digital technology, captioning, relay services, text messages, easy-to-read and plain language.” Failing to do so risks depriving an already vulnerable group of critical public health information.

For some persons with disabilities, personal support workers and family members may be uniquely capable of communicating such information and providing other necessary support. For these reasons, the presence of personal support workers and family members can be critical to the physical and mental wellbeing of persons with disabilities. However, they can also be a source of risk as potential carriers of the virus.

As a result, lockdown measures and other restrictions may isolate persons with disabilities from the people they rely on. This problem was tragically illustrated by the April 2020 death of Ariis Knight, a non-verbal woman who died in a British Columbia hospital without having family members present to communicate her needs. Her death led to the provincial government revising its policy on essential support visitors in hospitals.

Finally, people with disabilities who live in institutions such as long-term care residences, psychiatric facilities and detention centres may be particularly vulnerable to the virus, in part due to staffing issues and greater difficulty in achieving physical distancing, or in securing personal protective equipment. This vulnerability has led to calls from UN experts for accelerated deinstitutionalization of persons with disabilities worldwide.

Inclusion-Related Rights

Other risks to the rights of persons with disabilities during the pandemic include those that can prevent their full inclusion and participation in society. For example, under the Convention, the Charter, and domestic human rights legislation, persons with disabilities have the right to reasonable accommodations in schools, workplaces and other public places in order to exercise their rights to education, work, and participation in the community.

Moreover, member states have a general obligation under the Convention to “closely consult with and actively involve persons with disabilities” when deciding how to fulfill these obligations.

In terms of work and education, the pandemic presents opportunities as well as risks for persons with disabilities. For some, education and work may be more accessible than ever due to the increasing normalization of remote work and remote learning. However, others may be unable to work or continue their education from home due to financial or practical barriers, such as a lack of necessary equipment or support.

Although the pandemic affects everyone’s ability to participate in the community, research from the United Kingdom indicates that adults with disabilities are more likely to experience loneliness and related mental health impacts during the pandemic. These findings may indicate that persons with disabilities require additional support in order to protect their mental health and their related ability to participate in the community on an equal basis with others. This may be particularly true for people with mental health-related disabilities.

In terms of consultation, Canada’s approach has been highlighted by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) as a positive example. The COVID-19 Disability Advisory Group was established in April 2020 to provide the government with advice on the lived experiences of persons with disabilities, including challenges in accessing health care, public health information, and employment and income support.

This announcement followed the 24 March recommendations from disability-related groups, which called for “a Citizen’s Task Force inclusive of people with disabilities, their families, and relevant civil society organizations to monitor evolving needs and advise on remedial strategies in real time.”

Internationally Recognized Positive Practices

In addition to Canada’s COVID-19 Disability Advisory Group, positive international examples that were highlighted by the OHCHR in its guidance note include the following:

  • Issuing guidance on medical triage that explicitly prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability (San Marino Republic and United States)
  • Providing emergency shelter to those who may require physical distancing, and do not otherwise require more advanced medical services (Argentina)
  • Issuing recommendations for teachers to support the education of children with disabilities who need to remain isolated (Ecuador)
  • Launching a national program to make coronavirus testing available to persons with disabilities in their homes (United Arab Emirates)
  • Removing persons with disabilities from various institutions to live with their families, where possible (Spain and Switzerland)
  • Relaxing strict confinement rules to allow persons with disabilities to have opportunities to get outside (France and United Kingdom)

Additional Resources

Canadian Human Rights Commission, Disability Rights.

Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner, Persons with disabilities must not be left behind in the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, 2 April 2020.

Julian Walker, Library of Parliament, The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities: An Overview, 27 February 2013.

Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, COVID-19 and the Rights of Persons with Disabilities: Guidance, 29 April 2020.

Author: Robert Mason, Library of Parliament