Vaccines are now available globally to help protect people from COVID-19, yet many people with disabilities — who are at higher risk of adverse COVID-19 outcomes — have not been prioritised in Nigeria and across the ECOWAS region.
This lack of equity overlooks persons with disabilities despite the urgency to protect at-risk individuals. Without ample vaccine supply, prioritisation, concerted efforts for accessibility, inclusion, or outreach for people with disabilities, there will continue to be challenges with access and uptake, leaving this population at risk and unvaccinated.
Some countries have prioritised the vaccine for persons with disabilities, but distribution programs have had confusing eligibility and limited accessibility. For example, in Australia, people with disabilities living in residential care were prioritised, but many have yet to be vaccinated.
As Nigeria and member countries expand their vaccination campaigns for the general population, they must build on these good practices and consider how they will make their vaccine programmes accessible to all disabled people.
First, vaccination locations must be accessible, in accordance with the local laws. An accessible facility includes everything from the physical space to the facility’s environment. For instance, places with steps, loud noises, lots of people, or bright lights will be inaccessible for many people with disabilities.
If the focus could shift to accessible locations, close to the community or their doorstep, more people with disabilities could receive their vaccine. Taking the vaccine closer to communities and individuals reduces barriers, which will facilitate greater access for at-risk people.
Second, within developing countries and regions, distribution and administration sites should be at easy-to-reach locations. These sites need to be universally accessible, have long hours and easy booking systems, so that scheduling, location, and accessibility do not limit individuals’ access to the vaccine.
In particular, these sites should be located near accessible transport and parking to ensure that the entire vaccination experience — from home to vaccine facility and back — are accessible. Some countries have even provided accessible transport for people with disabilities to get their vaccine, which has also enhanced the accessibility of vaccination sites, and others have home vaccination.
Third, vaccine drives should deliberately target people with disabilities, along with their families, caregivers, therapists, teachers, and medical staff that support them.
For instance, Israel brought vaccines to a local, accessible community center to vaccinate people with disabilities and their caregivers. Similarly, in Chile, the ministry of health arranged for mobile teams to vaccinate people unable to travel to a local immunisation facility.
This leave no-one behind approach is the exact spirit we need in vaccinating Nigeria and ECOWAS member countries against COVID-19. Taking the vaccine closer to communities and individuals reduces barriers, which will facilitate greater access for at-risk people.
Fourth, member countries must make COVID-19 resources, including information, advisories, and public announcements accessible for everyone. The Centre for Disease Control and Prevention has resources about COVID-19 that are easy-to-read and in multiple formats, such as large fonts, videos with captions, it should also be adapted to sign language interpretation, and braille.
Following translation, these accessible formats, including sign language and captions will help people with disabilities access critical information about the COVID-19 vaccine, and where to get it. These efforts should be coupled with extensive outreach and communication efforts to improve vaccine confidence and work with local communities to reach all individuals with disabilities.
Fifth, staff training is key to shifting attitudes toward disability. It is important that staff who vaccinate people with disabilities should be educated in advance, to the best extent possible. This should include training on communication and accommodations to ensure the experience is inclusive and accessible to disabled people.
In the U.K. and Canada, accessible sites that have staff trained in treating people with disabilities have been set up. These facilities have been transformative in ensuring an inclusive and accessible environment for people with disabilities to get their vaccine.
These strategies can enhance the accessibility of COVID-19 vaccination for people with disabilities in Nigeria and across Member States.
Chidiadi Madumere, Strategic Communications and Development Expert and Founder of Black Purist ECOWAS From Abuja
Mitterand Okorie, Development Consultant & Communications Expert From Abuja