Persons with disabilities constitute one-fifth of the world’s population yet regularly confront discrimination, tiresome stereotypes, and problems accessing information, healthcare, and places of worship and religious sites. The global battle against COVID-19 has highlighted and intensified these challenges. As one Paralympian said: “The pandemic simply worsened an already bad situation.” To confront these challenges, the U.S. Department of State’s Office of International Religious Freedom has developed a social media campaign called “Every Life Is Worthy.”
People all over the world, along with organizations like Human Rights Watch and the International Disability Alliance (IDA), are bearing witness to how the COVID-19 crisis has increased risks to health, dignity, and fundamental freedoms of persons with disabilities. As countries locked down, many governments excluded persons with disabilities from accessible information, vital services, and support networks. Persons with disabilities have gone without food and medicine, and social isolation has taken a toll on mental health. In the worst cases, persons with disabilities are abused, institutionalized in crowded facilities, or even shackled or caged, and are therefore at grossly higher risk for infection, with no provision for health care at all.
As some parts of the world slowly begin to re-open and churches, mosques, synagogues, and temples resume in-person services, a new challenge has emerged. Persons with disabilities—deemed “too vulnerable” or “high risk” by some—have found the doors to houses of worship are closed to them. Rather than inquiring about how to support the participation of persons with disabilities, some communities are “walling them off for their own good” on the pretext of health and safety. Ana Lucia Arellano, Chairperson of IDA, said when community leaders re-open religious places without welcoming persons with disabilities, they signal that “the vulnerable, the disabled, must be walled off from society because they do not belong in it.” She argues that religious leaders making such a call will perpetuate cycles of exclusion across society, because houses of worship, as much as homes and schools, teach children and adults about values, morals, and principles of respect, inclusion, and diversity.
This is the time for people of faith to lead by example. Rather than contribute to exclusion, communities of faith can fill the moral vacuum created when governments left persons with disabilities behind and hold governments to account. The “Every Life Is Worthy” campaign includes a webpage providing suggestions and resources to help faith groups work toward inclusion and equal protection of persons with disabilities in their local community, country, and religious services. The campaign will solicit and amplify through Twitter and Facebook stories of successful inclusion and address ongoing challenges with a simple mission: Let’s connect! Let’s connect with persons with disabilities to amplify their truth in their own voices, remembering their right to worship in community with others is as valid and vital as anyone else’s. Let’s connect with faith leaders to raise their awareness to counter attitudes and practices of exclusion. Let’s connect disabled persons’ organizations and faith leaders to work collaboratively on promoting inclusion. And in doing so, let’s ensure no one is “walled off” and houses of worship, healthcare, and information are open and available to everyone.
Faith leaders and communities are long-time partners in human rights advocacy and activism with the United States, and delivering ingenuity in action and ready pulpits from which to raise awareness about attitudes and challenges. They may provide direct assistance such as counseling and other supports, including facilitating participation in religious services in keeping with the respect for choice and autonomy of persons with disabilities, and they can help direct resources in partnership with disabled persons’ organizations and governments. Some may already be engaged in this effort – working to protect the rights and amplify the voices of these most marginalized minorities. For others wanting to do the right thing and wondering how, the “Every Life Is Worthy” campaign creates a platform to forge new partnerships with persons with disabilities and their respective organizations, share information, and invigorate efforts to promote inclusive communities across the globe.
About the Author: Mariyam Cementwala is a Policy Advisor in the Office of International Religious Freedom.