Going hungry: food security for people with disabilities

We ask Disability Inclusion Advisor Murali Padmanabhan how the loss of work – and resulting hunger crisis – has impacted people with disabilities during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Murali Padmanabhan smiles at the camera. He is wearing a white collared shirt. He sits at a computer desk. The sun is shining through the window behind him.

Murali Padmanabhan is a Disability Inclusion Advisor at Light for the World. He is also a Member of the Disability Inclusion Advisory Group UN World Food Programme (WFP). Blind himself, Murali has more than 25 years experience in inclusion work across the Asia-Pacific region.

Below, he shares his advice on what governments, NGOs and employers can do to support people with disabilities in low income countries during the pandemic. 

Q. What’s the top challenge during COVID-19 for people with disabilities you work with?

A. Food.

Food is absolutely the top challenge for most people with disabilities living in poorer countries during this pandemic, including those I work with directly.

Millions were just about getting by pre-COVID-19. Many had jobs. They were earning something; not a lot, but enough to live ‘hand-to-mouth’.

Now – given lockdown and a spiralling economy – even their small wage has been taken away from them. So, many people with disabilities are starving.

Q. If you could ask for just one policy change from governments what would it be? 

A. Data.

I want governments and global institutions to ask themselves: “Are we really tracking data on people with disabilities in any of our initiatives? Are we making our system, resources, infrastructure, and procurement processes accessible? Are we taking any affirmative action, in the interests of equality and against additional vulnerability?”

Close to one billion people around the world do not get enough food according to WFP. Just under 250 million of them are based in my country, India. How many of these are people with disabilities? We have no clue. My guess: it’s a lot…

Q. How can NGOs do more?

A. We need to join forces together to take inclusive action against joblessness and hunger.

The good news: this is already happening!

This March I will speak at the annual Asia-Pacific Forum for Sustainable Development

Asia Pacific Forum on Sustainable Development flyer giving detail of GCAP side event speakers on 24th March focused on food security, including Murali Padmanabhan

Image description: Asia-Pacific Forum on Sustainable Development flyer for GCAP side event featuring Murali and other speakers from across civil society

There are lots of NGOs at this crucial meeting.

They represent so many differing groups including women, trade unions, dalits, and others.

The common issue which has really struck every community though is food security.

Working together with partners including Global Campaign Against Poverty (GCAP) – the impact we are able to have is huge.

I am really proud of our livelihood initiatives at Light for the World which support people with disabilities in poorer settings to get an income, so they can feed themselves and their families – including in Bangladesh, Nepal, Kenya and Uganda. They involve lots of important partnerships from the grassroots to the international level, from DPOs, to NGOs, to the private sector.


Photo description: Participants in the HAMRO project coffee in Nepal which Light for the World partners with the National Federation of the Disabled Nepal and ICCO on, as part of the Inclusive Futures Initiative. The programme aims to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 and its effect on livelihoods of people with disabilities.

Q. What's your advice to global decision makers on how to make the COVID-19 recovery disability-inclusive? 

A. Disability is not a 'stand-alone' issue.

We won’t get anywhere if we see it that way.

We need to approach our steps towards recovery by recognising the complexity, intersectionality & interlinks that exist.

When it comes to livelihood, food security, and inequality—these three issues are inextricably linked. The individual experiences of people matter.

Most people experience different forms of overlapping marginalisation – for example: “Because of my impairment; Because my country is poor; Because I am from a farming community; Because I am a woman; Because of my caste; Because I am indigenous.” 

People face specific issues, yes. But at the same time there are issues which disproportionally affect them because of their disability. That’s why inclusion across the board is so important.