Iran: People with disabilities endangered by lack of information

To mark the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, ARTICLE 19 calls on the Iranian authorities to review and amend the country’s legislation to ensure that the rights of people with disabilities to freedom of expression and access to information are fully guaranteed in line with international law and on an equal basis with others. They must take further steps to eliminate discriminatory attitudinal, environmental and institutional barriers faced by them

The global pandemic has exacerbated pre-existing barriers and is disproportionately endangering the lives of people with disabilities. The Iranian authorities must take into particular account the impact of the crisis on people with disabilities and address it in their response legislation.

“The failure to guarantee the right of persons with disabilities to access information is a serious cause for concern in the context of a global health crisis where the violation of the right to access information could lead to loss of life. The Iranian authorities must, as a matter of urgency, adopt measures to guarantee the rights to health and life of persons with disabilities including through ensuring they have access to information in an accessible format,” said Saloua Ghazouani, Director of ARTICLE 19 Middle East and North Africa Programme.

Iran is a state party to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (the CRPD) which requires countries to guarantee the rights of people with disabilities, including the right to access information, without any discrimination. Article 21 of the CRPD says that states should “take all appropriate measures to ensure that persons with disabilities can exercise the right to freedom of expression and opinion, including the freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas on an equal basis with others and through all forms of communication of their choice.”

“Signing the UN Convention, while a very positive step, would not in itself guarantee the rights of people with disabilities if domestic laws are not accordingly amended and implementation is not fully enforced,” added Ghazouani.

Iran’s 2009 Publication and Free Access to Information Act, which provides for the right to request information from public institutions, lacks provisions guaranteeing the right of persons with disabilities to seek and receive information in accessible formats.

States should proactively disclose reliable and accurate information to ensure that people with disabilities can effectively exercise their civil and political rights as well as their economic, social and cultural rights, including the right to health, sexual and reproductive rights, employment and education. Information should be made accessible in formats responding to the diverse needs of persons with disabilities, including sign language, Braille, audio, electronic and easy-to-read and understand versions.

Access to information for people with disabilities in Iran

Under the Publication and Free Access to Information Act, every Iranian citizen has a right to request information from public, private, and other institutions providing public services such as non-governmental organisations. All bodies are obligated to provide the requested information within ten working days.

While the Act is a step forward, there are a number of shortcomings including broad and vague exemptions and the failure to guarantee the right to access information for non-citizens. Furthermore, the Act and its bylaws and directives do not provide for any special means for persons with disabilities to be able to seek and receive information by means and format accessible to them. Other shortcomings of the law, including the lack of any provisions providing for translation for national minorities further compound barriers for people who may face intersectional and multiple layers of discrimination. According to the Constitution, the only official language in Iran is Persian (or Farsi) and the languages of ethnic groups are considered as local languages that shall not be used in official documents including requests for information and responses. This means that persons with disabilities from national minorities face even more extensive hurdles in accessing information.

Iran’s 2004 Comprehensive Law on Protecting the Rights of Disabled Persons, which provides for certain rights for people with disabilities, neither includes a disability-based discrimination clause nor makes any mentions of some basic rights such as the right to access information.

The UN’s Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has expressed concerns about the lack of accessible public information in Iran, including accessible websites as well as the lack of communication

Technology, for persons with disabilities, including easy-read formats. The Committee has further expressed concerns about “the lack of systems to collect data on the situation of persons with disabilities, including the barriers that they face in exercising their rights”.

Access to information for people with disabilities during COVID-19

As ARTICLE 19 has previously stated, information is essential for reducing the risk of transmission; protecting the population against dangerous misinformation; and ensuring that people can evaluate, debate and participate in decision makings that impact their lives. Therefore, an essential step in the implementation of public health crisis strategies must be the identification of what information would be key for populations, communities and individuals to receive. Consideration must be given, not only to what information needs to be provided, but also to how it should be presented so that it is accessible and understandable to a variety of intended audiences including persons with disabilities.

Since the start of the pandemic, various UN bodies and experts have raised concerns about the disproportionate risk faced by persons with disabilities. In June 2020, the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities expressed “its grave concern at the devastating impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on persons with disabilities.” The Committee drew attention to a number of guidelines, policy briefs and statements by UN bodies and independent experts which, among others, call on states to ensure that all services related to COVID-19 crisis “should be accessible for persons with disabilities on an equal basis with others and provided on accessible platforms in various alternative formats, modes and methods of communication.”

Accessibility, including accessing Covid-19 related information, is crucial in ensuring that people with disabilities are included in responses to the pandemic. Many persons with disabilities have pre-existing health conditions that make them more vulnerable than the rest of the population to contracting the virus and places them at a higher risk of death if infected. Moreover, some people with disabilities may rely on their carers or their sense of touch for navigating and understanding their surroundings. This may place them at a higher risk of contracting the virus.

ARTICLE 19 expresses concerns that public information on measures on COVID-19, including information on prevention as well as information on treatment, have not been systematically disseminated in accessible formats for persons with disabilities in Iran, for example, sign language, Easy to Read format, and captioning. Individuals with disabilities and disability rights activists in Iran have spoken out about being “forgotten” amid the crisis caused by COVID-19. They have raised concerns that even the simplest material for preventing the dissemination of the virus has not been communicated in an accessible format to persons with disabilities. For example, in an interview with Iran Newspaper, a disability rights activist stated:

These days, some groups in the society face additional problems both in terms of prevention and receiving treatment… for example, persons who are deaf need to access information through sign language and captions. Have you ever thought how someone who can’t hear could access the information about the disease disseminated by news programmes to people? Most of the times there are no sign language interpreters on [state] TV programmes and even when there are, our friends who are deaf say that they are not of a good standard meaning that this group in practice does not have access to information and therefore can place themselves and others at risk.

According to disability rights activists, even basic prevention material such as the video on “how to wash your hands” has not been accessible to persons with disabilities such as those who are blind or visually impaired. There has also reportedly been a lack of material in relation to prevention and other important information with regards to COVID-19 specially designed and produced for individuals whose disability affects their mobility. Deaf and hard of hearing people have raised concerns that even when sign language interpreters are provided on programs aired on state TV, ‘standard sign language’, which is not legible to them, is used. Despite repeated complaints, the authorities have failed to ensure that the sign language used and understood by deaf and hard of hearing persons is used on state TV.

Moreover, people with disabilities have pointed out that some COVID-19 measures, including wearing of masks and the prohibition on the presence of interpreters in hospitals, has created additional barriers for them to access health related services. Wearing of masks by medical staff in a context where sign language interpreters are not provided means that persons who are deaf may not be able to access crucial information related to their health in a timely manner. ARTICLE 19 is concerned that the failure to provide alternative measures to ensure full access to COVID-19 related information to persons with disabilities is further exacerbating the already existing discrimination in health and care services. Research and documentation by human rights organisations show that discriminatory attitudes and a lack of awareness about disability among medical staff, impede access to medical care for persons with disabilities in Iran. In some instances, healthcare professionals fail to provide persons with disabilities with comprehensive information about the nature and course of treatment or potential side-effects in accessible formats and do not seek or obtain informed consent.

The entrenched discrimination and inequality faced by persons with disabilities has resulted in their exclusion from COVID-19 measures and has compounded the devastating impact of the pandemic on them. Iran must take immediate measures to fully, effectively and comprehensively implement the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and to ensure that persons with disabilities are included in all COVID-19 public response measures.