Although calculating the number of people with disabilities in the world is a complicated task, since there are no official records, and also because of other challenges, such as having to distinguish between physical, mental, intellectual or sensory disabilities, according to the WHO estimates, 15% of the world's population lives with disabilities. However, in the discourses related to disability, mentioning the numbers is not so functional, since it should be noted, first, that many people may not recognise or do not consider their condition as a disability, and second, that each person experiences their disability differently.
This is due not only to the other elements that make up their identity, such as gender, age, sexual identity, ethnicity, nationality, which also define the way in which the disability manifests itself and which lessen or aggravate its consequences, but also to the factors that characterize their social position, such as their economic situation, educational level and migratory status (regular or irregular), among others. These factors can affect and limit the capabilities and opportunities of the person with a disability. In this sense, the severity of the disability is partly related to the living conditions and the environment in which the person lives. Migrants living with disabilities face numerous obstacles and suffer greater vulnerability, as they often lack opportunities and adequate attention to their needs and find it more difficult to access health and social security services.
Can the migration process be the cause of disability?
Due to the lack of studies focused on the subject of disability, the literature on the quality of life of migrants living with such a condition is scarce. However, some studies refer to how the migration process itself can also be the cause of disability.
According to a COAMEX report, which is based specifically on the migratory route from Mexico to the United States, during their journey, migrants have to deal with difficult and risky situations that can expose them to the risk of acquiring conditions of disability, especially physical or psychosocial, such as:
- Getting on or off a moving train (often to flee, avoid arrest, or move more quickly through some sections), which can cause mutilations.
- Having accidents or suffer the damages of a collision of vehicles in which groups of migrants are in unsafe conditions, or be the victim of violent acts that leave physical contusions.
- As a result of an experience that can be stressful and traumatic, some migrants suffer from anxiety, panic disorders and post-traumatic stress, which in turn can lead to the development of psychosocial disabilities.
Through a statement, the United Nations also emphasized the vulnerability of migrants to the risk of disability. For example, migrant workers who have lower educational levels or who suffer from labour exclusion in many sectors, often have to deal with dangerous manual work, which expose people to high risk of accidents and consequently to conditions of physical disability.
What does it mean to be a migrant and live with a disability in times of a pandemic?
Reiterating the data and information disseminated by the World Health Organization, the IOM indicates that the risks suffered by people with disabilities (of course, depending on their disability) are due to:
- Difficulties in complying with some preventive and protective hygiene measures, such as frequent hand washing (in particular, in cases where sinks are physically inaccessible or a person has physical difficulties to properly rub their hands); or putting on masks.
- Obstacles to access information or maintain social distancing and isolation, since people with disabilities may need daily support from health personnel or family members and acquaintances.
- People with disabilities can also suffer from more serious COVID-19 infections, due to pre-existing conditions, inability or difficulty in accessing health care services, and ultimately abrupt disruptions in the support systems from which they often benefit.
Migrant with disabilities present greater vulnerabilities to COVID-19, as these situations can be even more harmful when coexisting with other unfavourable conditions, such as lack of social protection, low economic levels, discrimination and social exclusion.
From the outside, it is easy to be able to identify physical disabilities and to make an effort to understand the struggles that the person faces. Less visible, however, are other types of challenges with which these people live, such as social and labour exclusion, stigma, discrimination or the obstacles they encounter when accessing education. These obstacles are doubly harmful for migrants living with disabilities.
For this reason, it is necessary to stimulate a broader and more active conversation about the subject, especially due to a still lacking literature on disability. Institutions, agencies and organizations should be invited to carry out more studies to make the issue visible and lead initiatives. Furthermore, the legislative framework that protects people with disabilities must be strengthened, more innovative solutions have to be discussed and provided, and above all, access to health must be guaranteed to migrants with disabilities.
Social, economic and political inclusion of people with disabilities, although not directly listed as a Sustainable Development Goal, is transversal to many of the goals of the 2030 Agenda and its purpose of ‘leaving no one behind '. From health (SDG 3) to quality education (SDG 4), decent work (SDG 8) and reduction of inequality (SDG 10) among others: the 2030 Agenda sanctions our commitments to achieve the empowerment and full inclusion of people -including migrants- with disabilities.