Hand washing with soap remains one of the most important behaviours for interrupting the transmission of COVID-19. Below we describe common challenges that people with disabilities may face in practicing hand washing or engaging with handwashing promotion programmes:

  • Greater need for handwashing: In contexts where people lack sufficient access to assistive devices, such as crutches or wheelchairs, people with disabilities may need to touch the ground or surfaces to move around and so need to wash their hands with soap and water more often. Where assistive devices like crutches and wheelchairs are available, these items can pose a risk for contamination since immediately after handwashing with soap people with disabilities need to touch the device which may not be clean.
  • Impairment related limitations: For people with physical impairments this could include difficulties rubbing hands together thoroughly. People with intellectual and cognitive impairments may not remember when, how or why hands should be washed.
  • Limited support from carers: People with disabilities may be reliant on carers to help them to practice regular handwashing. In some cases carers may not prioritise the needs of the individual with disability. In other cases limited support may be due to carers lacking information about how to support another person’s WASH requirements, and may not have the required social support to do so.
  • Inaccessible handwashing infrastructure: People with disabilities may be less able to independently collect or pour water (resulting in reduced quantity of water available for handwashing) and may have more difficulties reaching soap and water or using standard handwashing facilities. These gaps can become more pronounced during outbreaks as hand washing facilities are rapidly scaled up. For example this was noted in Sierra Leone during the Ebola crisis.
  • Inaccessible information or hygiene promotion programmes: For people with sensory or intellectual impairments hygiene promotion materials may be more difficult to read or comprehend. Often in humanitarian responses it is unusual that these communication materials are designed in a more accessible way. People with disabilities are also more likely to remain at home while others in the household attend hygiene promotion events or distribution of kits. There are often both physical and social barriers that contribute to this.

Want to know more about considering disability in COVID-19 hygiene programmes:

Editor notes:

Written by: Jane Wilbur

Reviewed by: Hannah Kuper, Islay Mactaggart, Sian White, Chelsea Huggett

Last updated: 25.5.2020

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