In their own words: How Latinas with disabilities persevere during the pandemic

Illustration of blue single-use face masks in a repeating pattern on a red background.

Illustration by Giovana Fleck.

How do you maintain social distancing when you navigate the world by using a cane? What is it like to go to a vaccination site where people speak out loud and not by sign language? How can you access treatment for chronic diseases when the entire healthcare system prioritizes patients with COVID-19? These are just a few of the challenges faced today by Latin American women with disabilities.

More than 70 million people with disabilities live in Latin America, comprising one of the groups of people most affected by the global health emergency in the region. According to the UN Economic Commission for Latin America (ECLA) there has been an increase in the inequities and disadvantages for this group, which has been marginalized throughout history. As ECLA states: “The COVID-19 pandemic has shed light on how much progress has yet to be made in this region in order to guarantee the rights of people with disabilities.”

Latin Americans with disabilities are also underrepresented in news coverage across the region. Through conversations facilitated by journalists, six Latina women, some of them immigrants, shared their fears, tenacity, concerns, and reflections about the pandemic with each other. They discussed how they utilize their networks of family and friends to make progress personally and professionally during the pandemic. They also shared how they use skills they developed prior to the pandemic to take on a world that often does not recognize their rights.

To combat discrimination and neglect, the six women interviewed for this project worked with fellow women with disabilities. They also joined together with activists and disability organizations to make changes for the broader disability community. A few of the groups these women work with include: The Circle of Women with Disabilities (CIMUDIS, in Spanish), Disability Rights International and The World Federation of the Deaf. For example, in the Dominican Republic, members of CIMUDIS and other organizations successfully advocated for people with disabilities to receive priority consideration at vaccination sites.

All the women interviewed for this project agreed on one thing: the ongoing challenge is for the community as a whole to care for people with different types of disabilities, in order for everyone to be included in society.

To learn more about the pandemic perspectives of the women interviewed for this project, you can explore the following map:

ALT TEXT: This preview image of the StoryMap digital tool features six photos of women wearing masks, as well as a map of the world marking six different locations in Latin America, Spain and the United States. A transcript of the text on the map and alternative text describing the photos can be accessed here.

International studies concur with the women interviewed. Specifically, United Nations experts in human rights say that people with disabilities, as well as disability activists and associations, should have been consulted on how to respond adequately to COVID-19. According to these reports, situations of exclusion and abuse could have been avoided, such as extreme confinement, difficulties obtaining medicine and food, and the risk of increased violence against women and girls. The reports also call for people with disabilities to be included in the reconstruction of the post-pandemic world.

The United Nations also urged authorities to ensure the participation of people with disabilities in the global health response, as part of complying with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. This international pact to protect their rights has been ratified by 184 countries. Article 11 of this convention states that the rights of people with disabilities must be guaranteed in humanitarian emergencies.

In addition, access to medicine, vaccines, mental health resources and well-being are all included in Agenda 2030, a United Nations action plan to reduce poverty. The UN also called on nations to prioritize the support of people with disabilities in poverty during the pandemic. Policies should include access to work and food, as well as other resources for those who are in isolation or face violations of their rights in other forms.

Specific actions were planned by Latin American governments to help people with disabilities navigate the pandemic in terms of education, work, health, and social issues. However, it is not known what these steps were and what the results have been in Latin America. “It is concerning that only in rare cases is this [information] collected or analyzed. The absence of reliable and sufficient facts prevents us from having credible data to estimate the impacts of the coronavirus on the population with disabilities,” ECLAC states.

However, the responsibility for creating inclusive communities does not only lie with public authorities, according to interviewee Zaría Abreu Flores: “As a society, we have not yet understood that caring for one another should be a collective effort. Everyone needs to embrace discas* (people with disabilities). If we don’t, we’re leaving these people alone and on the sidelines when it comes to care and self-care. That is ableist and eugenic.**”

*In Spanish, “discas” is a way to say “people with disabilities.” It’s often used in common speech by people with disabilities to refer to themselves. 

**“Ableism”, refers to ways of discriminating against and constructing taboos around people with disabilities, generally to consider them inferior, of less value and/or infantilize them. “Eugenics” refers to ways of eliminating people with physical characteristics associated with being “weak,” in order to make the human race “healthy” or “strong.” 

“Persisting in the Pandemic: Conversations between Latinas with disabilities” was produced with support from the International Center for Journalists and the Hearst Foundations as part of the ICFJ-Hearst Foundations Global Health Crisis Reporting Grant. The grant also provided mentorship and editorial support from Mexican journalist Priscila Hernández Flores, who specializes in reporting on human rights with an emphasis on diversity and disability. The women who participated in this project interviewed each other and guided their conversations. This is the first of a four-article series. The other stories in this reporting project take a look at how the lives of the women interviewed changed both outside and inside the home during the pandemic, as well as the methodology for this project. 

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