Iran is a nation often in the news, but for its people the real story of 2020 is the death of more than 20,000 that has made it one of 11 countries hit hardest by the pandemic. The economy – already affected badly by economic sanctions – further deteriorated after COVID-19 restrictions were imposed, leaving many people unemployed, supply chains broken, and borders closed.

Since the first COVID-19 cases were confirmed in February, UN agencies in Iran have mobilized to support the national struggle against the outbreak, focusing particularly on ensuring that no one is left behind.

For people with disabilities, COVID-19 exacerbated everyday difficulties like the absence of wheelchair ramps to buildings and accessible public transportation; the lack of sign language interpreters at health-care centres and public institutions; and the shortage of home caregivers for people with mobility issues.

Health advice broadcast on radio and TV may not reach deaf and hearing-impaired people, and masks further complicate communication. The list of ways vulnerable people have been affected by the pandemic is long. The result is the one billion people with disabilities around the world who have long felt the impact of inequality finds it intensifying significantly now. COVID-19 has meant that one in seven people  are less likely to access education, healthcare and income opportunities, to struggle more to participate in their communities, and to be more likely to die of the disease and related causes.

Samaneh 's story

For 30-year-old Samaneh Shabani, a former intern at UN Information Centre-Tehran, the gravity and scope of these problems hits close to home. Born blind, COVID-19 suddenly rendered her primary sensory connections to the world — hearing and touch—unreliable. The deathly silence of empty city streets was not only disturbing, but disorienting to her ability to navigate her way, and her need to get her bearings by touching surfaces puts her at greater risk of possible infection.

But Samaneh’s determination in setting and achieving her goals has never been deterred by her blindness or by society’s prejudice toward people with disabilities. She has steadfastly refused to accept any notion of limitation.

Her love for languages started from an early age; she started learning English when she was a child and she is a skillful piano player and a role model for many in her community and university. “I believe in the reality of my life and have tried to be the best of myself,” she said. That includes a formidable commitment to higher education that has produced impressive results: Samaneh  holds a master’s degree from Iran’s prestigious University of Tehran, and recently defended her PhD. Dissertation on Violence Against Women with Disabilities and their Access to Justice under International Human Rights Law.

Now a university lecturer in law, Samaneh continues to advocate passionately for people with disabilities, helping them to learn about their rights and figure out how best to overcome hurdles during this crisis.

Interning at the UN

Her internship at UNIC Tehran and participation in several outreach events it hosted reconfirmed how vital communication and accurate information are to help those with disabilities cope with this crisis. Equally important is how essential it is to change  public perceptions about people with disabilities and social attitudes toward them – and to persuade policy makers to seriously address their real concerns in ways that enable them to access pragmatic solutions to the issues they face.

To achieve these longer-term objectives, Samaneh volunteers for the Tavana, an internationally recognized NGO based in Qazvin whose fundamental principle is empowering persons with disabilities and improving public awareness. It disseminates national and international covenants like the International Convention of the Rights of persons with Disabilities, which Iran ratified in 2008; Iran’s “Law to Protect the Rights of the Disabled, which its Parliament ratified in 2018; and the Persian translation of the UN’s guidance on how states can mitigate the disproportionate risks faced by persons with disabilities during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Putting her UN experience to good use in her capacity as an advisor to Tavana, Samaneh serves as the bridge between the NGO into the UNIC. Her efforts highlight the need to share publicly verified information and the importance of engaging with communities strategically and directly to achieve results.  

“If each of us will take even a modest action to help a person in need – an elderly neighbor, a single mother, a person with a disability – we would be much stronger in our battle with COVID-19,” Samaneh said earnestly.

Advocating for a better future

Samaneh is not complacent about her blindness and accepts that it does prevent her from doing some activities. What it does not prevent is her hard work, her fierce commitment to a truly inclusive society where people with disabilities are equal under the law, and the successes of the active life she has built. But she is also a pragmatist with a keen understanding that laws, edicts, and conventions are only words until they are translated into actionable change by governments, the private sector, civil society, and individuals determined to see real change. This means building ramps and wheelchair-friendly buildings, training and hiring sign-language translators, supplying buses with lifts to accommodate wheelchairs and people with motor-function disabilities, printing more textbooks, official decrees and key legislation in Braille, adding handrails in washrooms, and making other accommodations that can make a world of the difference to someone who needs them.

“This pandemic taught us that only together we can ensure that no one is left behind,” Samaneh smiles at her interviewer on Skype. “Let us be kind and help each other.” For her and the many people her life has inspired, these are not just empty words. They are a lesson whose importance COVID-19 has underscored, and one that will remain vital in building a better future for all.