Covid-19 has brought with it a host of changes for development researchers. In many cases, fieldwork has been replaced with remote research methods, ranging from third party data collection to phone interviews and SMS surveys. Whilst remote methods are improving, there are some clear gaps in the existing literature and discussions on the subject. One key issue that has not received enough attention is how we include persons with disabilities when using remote research methods.
Persons with disabilities are often marginalised in research studies. In particular, those who are hearing impaired or have intellectual or psycho-social disabilities often facing the greatest levels of exclusion, especially in the Global South. With reduced opportunities for in-person research, there is a need to examine how we can ensure that persons with disabilities perspectives and experiences are properly represented in research when using remote research methods. There is also a need to consider how researchers with disabilities can conduct research remotely, when there is so much reliance on technology, that may not always be accessible.
Discussions around accessing research participants have highlighted the challenges involved in accessing the most vulnerable and marginalised when conducting remote research. In particular, the fact that many of the poorest participants may not have access to a mobile phone, the primary tool used to conduct research remotely, has been highlighted. Persons with disabilities with low incomes, may not only lack access to a mobile phone, but also to the assistive devices/tools required for them to be able to use these phones or participate in research. Moreover, research suggests that women may be harder to reach than men, and that women with disabilities often face double discrimination, meaning that they may be particularly difficult for researchers to reach.
Obtaining informed consent remotely, presents a range of challenges. Researchers have used a range of methods from video messages to verbal consent. However, when not present in-person, it can be harder for researchers to be sure that participants have fully understood the purpose of the research, how it will be used, and what they are consenting to. These challenges are likely to be even more marked when engaging with those who require assistance to participate in remote research, as it is impossible to be clear on the dynamics between the participant and those assisting them, when not present in person.
Much discussion of remote research methods centres around the use of telephone interviews and surveys. Given the difficulties some persons with disabilities might face in participating in telephone surveys, their exclusion is likely to be exacerbated by the use of such methods. For example, while, ideally, video would be used when engaging with those with hearing impairments, it is unlikely that those already living in extreme poverty will have the means to access video, or strong enough internet connections/access to data to participate in such calls. This means that third party data collection is really the only viable option in these circumstances.
Training third party data collection teams
Challenges related to undertaking research via the telephone or SMS mean that it may be necessary to rely on third party data collection. When using this approach to undertake fieldwork, it is particularly important to ensure that any remote training is comprehensive and covers issues around disability sensitivity. However, it may be harder to gauge the extent to which enumerators have taken this information on board, when not engaging with them in person. Interactive training materials are therefore key. However, challenges with internet connectivity and access to the necessary technology should be taken into account when designing training materials and programmes. Similarly, the needs of persons with disabilities participating as data collectors should be carefully considered, as they may face difficulties accessing certain online materials if they do not have the necessary assistive devices to make them accessible.
It is unlikely that widespread in-person fieldwork will be possible for some time. While remote research methods are continuously evolving, and there is much engagement in terms of maximising their potential, the needs of persons with disabilities, both as research respondents and as researchers have not received much attention. There is therefore a need for greater discussion and innovation to ensure that remote research is truly inclusive.