COVID-19 Disability Rights Monitor (DRM) calls for an end to police violence and abuse against persons with disabilities and their family members

4 Aug 2020

The COVID-19 Disability Rights Monitor Coordinating Group express their alarm about increasing police violence against persons with disabilities in the context of the pandemic, and are calling on governments around the world to take urgent steps to prevent acts of brutality.

Early in the COVID-19 global pandemic, the global community and persons with disabilities highlighted the risk persons with disabilities face when government responses to the pandemic are not inclusive. Although a policy brief by the United Nations and World Health Organization technical guidance on COVID-19 responses that integrate persons with disabilities are available, little is being done to protect persons with disabilities in interactions with police or defense units who enforce mandatory shelter at home or lockdown orders.

The COVID-19 Disability Rights Monitor (DRM) survey on state measures concerning persons with disabilities amid the coronavirus pandemic collected information from 296 respondents from around the world regarding penalties or punishment for breaking COVID-19 state of emergency rules. These responses reveal an alarming global phenomenon of police harassment, torture, and murder of persons with disabilities and their family members.

Public information campaigns have been largely inaccessible throughout the pandemic. Safe and timely delivery of medication and medical treatment for persons with disabilities have been lacking as well. Family members of persons with disabilities have been banned from making contact with their loved ones, many of whom are locked inside institutions. The result is a dangerous situation in which police tasked with enforcing lockdowns encounter persons with disabilities leaving their home to meet their basic needs.

In the most extreme cases, breaking curfew rules was a matter of life or death. For instance, a retired soldier with post-traumatic disorder was shot and killed in the Philippines. In Kenya in June police forces killed a man with a physical disability for not wearing a face mask. A deaf-blind man who was out after curfew was shot by Ugandan local defence units. A video emerged online of a policeman beating a disabled man who allegedly broke curfew rules in Mozambique. In Serbia, a young man with autism was beaten by police on the evening of a protest.

Around the world persons with disabilities and their family members have had no choice but to break curfew rules to access food and essential medical supplies, because no exceptions are being made for them. Reports from the COVID-19 DRM survey include gender-based police brutality against women who broke the curfew rules to seek food. A mother of a child with Cerebral Palsy was harassed by policemen on her way to collect food relief at one of the distribution centers in Nigeria. In South Africa some parents of children with disabilities have been fined or arrested for going to buy diapers or medication. COVID-19 DRM survey respondents reported police harassment of family members trying to make contact with their loved ones in institutions. A person with disabilities in France said she knew a woman who was fined for waving through a closed window to her husband who lives in a retirement home. Emergency measures enacted by the French government now allow persons with autism to go out more frequently. However, the French police often erratically decide whether a person is autistic or not based on their appearance rather than documented medical proof of autism.

As a result, respondents from around the world reported that they are living in fear of the police. In Europe, respondents from Italy, France, Russia and the United Kingdom said that they are afraid to leave their homes. Many people believed that the police are unreasonable and heavy-handed. A person with disabilities from the United Kingdom noted, “in my city [a friend with physical disabilities] was aggressively accosted and made to move on by the police for sitting down on a public bench… Stories such as this… make me concerned about going out due to potential aggression from the police.”

Persons with disabilities are particularly vulnerable to various forms of exploitation, violence, and abuse in countries with strict curfews and strong police or military presence – regardless of whether or not countries are in a global crisis. Governments around the world must respect and protect the diverse needs of persons with disabilities when responding to the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond in accordance with obligations under international law, especially the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and/or national legislation, such as Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

We therefore call for:

  1. Governments to investigate and hold accountable police and other security services which abuse, injure, or kill persons with disabilities during COVID-19 related shelter at home or lockdown orders.
  2. National and local governments to respond quickly to recommendations regarding inclusive COVID-19 response and recovery put forward by national organizations of persons with disabilities, such as these recommendations by the National Union of Disabled Persons of Uganda and other Ugandan organizations of persons with disabilities.
  3. Local government and law enforcement to consult with organizations of persons with disabilities in COVID-19 response and to develop crisis intervention alternatives for persons with psychosocial or intellectual disabilities.
  4. Governments to prioritize investment in alternatives to policing and security responses, such as the establishment and use of crisis intervention teams, to persons with disabilities who are out of their homes meeting their basic needs during COVID-19 shelter at home or lockdown orders.
  5. Government and law enforcement to put in place necessary measures to protect persons with disabilities who are in situations of risk, especially during curfews or shelter at home orders related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
  6. Government and law enforcement to ensure all security briefings and reports take into consideration the perspectives and rights of persons with disabilities during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  7. Government to ensure police officers and security forces are trained and take into account the specific needs of persons with disabilities during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Disability Rights Monitor, Coordinating Group