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COVID-19 should not herald rollback in rights for people with autism: UN chief

António Guterres’s appeal came in his message for World Autism Awareness Day, observed annually on 2 April.

This year’s commemoration is being held as countries grapple with the pandemic, which is placing persons with autism at disproportionate risk of the new coronavirus and its impacts.

“Persons with autism have the right to self-determination, independence and autonomy, as well as the right to education and employment on an equal basis with others. But the breakdown of vital support systems and networks as a result of COVID-19 exacerbates the obstacles that persons with autism face in exercising these rights”, the UN chief said.

“We must ensure that a prolonged disruption caused by the emergency does not result in rollbacks of the rights that persons with autism and their representative organizations have worked so hard to advance”.

UN champions diversity

Autism refers to a range of conditions characterised by some degree of impaired social behaviour, communication and language, which begin in childhood, usually during the first five years of life, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

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While some people with autism can live independently, others have severe disabilities and require life-long care and support. They are often subject to social stigma and discrimination, including being deprived of full health care and education rights.

The UN has long celebrated diversity and advocates for the rights of persons with disabilities, including learning differences and developmental disabilities.

The Secretary-General stressed that the rights of persons with disabilities must not be infringed upon during times like the current pandemic.

“Governments have a responsibility to ensure that their response includes persons with autism”, he advised. “Persons with autism should never face discrimination when

seeking medical care. They must continue to have access to the support systems required to remain in their homes and communities through times of crisis, instead of facing the prospect of forced institutionalization”, he said.

Consult persons with disabilities

However, the Secretary-General underlined that everyone has a role in ensuring these needs are met during the pandemic, including by providing critical information in accessible formats.

“We must also recognize that when schools employ online teaching, students with non-standard ways of learning may be at a disadvantage. The same applies to the workplace and working remotely”, he said.

“Even in these unpredictable times, we must commit to consulting persons with disabilities and their representative organizations, and ensuring that our non-traditional ways of working, learning, and engaging with each other, as well as our global response to the coronavirus, are inclusive of and accessible to all people, including persons with autism”.

Rights experts weigh in

The Secretary-General’s stance on the rights of persons with disabilities during the pandemic has been echoed by two UN representatives who also call for this community to be consulted on response.

Danlami Basharu, Chair of the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and María Soledad Cisternas Reyes, the UN chief’s Special Envoy on Disability and Accessibility, have issued a joint statement reminding countries of their obligations under international law.

They called for accelerated measures to discharge persons with disabilities from institutions, such as nursing homes and psychiatric hospitals, due to the increased risk of COVID-19 spread in these locations.

Additionally, countries should ensure they have equal access to health services, including mental health services, during this period.

“States should also continue providing to persons with disabilities the health services required by persons with disabilities specifically because of their disabilities”, they added.

“During the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, States should prevent discriminatory denial of health care or life-saving services, food or fluids on the basis of disability”.

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