The disproportionate impact of emergencies on people with disabilities
In all wars and disasters, it is persons with disabilities that are first to die; persons with disabilities that are the first to get disease and infection; and it is persons with disabilities who are the last to get resources and medicines when they are handed out. They get treated at the bottom of the pile” (Stubbs in WRC 2008: 6).
Given in 2007, this quote still resonates with the humanitarian crises we see today. As the new rapid response briefing on “Including people with disabilities in emergency relief efforts” from IDS shows, emergencies have a disproportionate impact on those already marginalised by society, including people with disabilities and their families. For example, people with disabilities are often left behind in responses to the current Syrian crisis and Ebola epidemic.
Why is this the case? Lack of awareness, negative attitudes and physical barriers
- Discriminatory attitudes, poverty and structural inequalities, the loss of assistive devices and support networks, and lack of accessible information or emergency evacuation procedures result in people with disabilities being left behind, losing their independence, being vulnerable to abuse, and at disproportionate risk of death or injury.
- Lack of awareness of their needs, discriminatory attitudes, and physical inaccessibility mean people with disabilities often face challenges in having their basic needs and rights to food, shelter, health, and security met in emergency relief efforts.
One size does not fit all – people with disabilities have diverse needs
Having conducted research on one of the most invisible groups of people in humanitarian emergencies, people with intellectual disabilities, I really appreciate the briefing’s recognition of the diversity of disability. That, for example, a person using a wheelchair or on crutches may be visible in a crowd, but someone with hearing or learning difficulties may go unnoticed. Or that women with disabilities may be treated differently than men with disabilities. Often it seems that if people with disabilities’ needs are considered, it has been to meet short-term needs in relation to physical impairments acquired as a result of the emergency. While providing prosthetics is vitally important, so is creating an inclusive and accessible environment which overcomes all the other barriers which disable people and prevent people with different disabilities accessing education or livelihoods or even emergency food and non-food items.
How can we make emergency relief efforts more inclusive?
Thankfully awareness is increasing and some progress is being made. Article 11 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities relates to situations of risk and emergencies. The newest edition of the Sphere Standards has disability as a cross cutting issue. Donors are introducing disability inclusive policies and NGOs have created manuals on inclusive humanitarian action. However, as the rapid response briefing makes clear, much more needs to be done, especially when it comes to implementation. As it recommends:
- People with disabilities should be involved across the humanitarian cycle, including in long-term reconstruction.
- It is important to follow a twin-track approach, having both accessible mainstream responses as well as dedicated responses for specific needs.
- There should be training to develop awareness, skills and competencies on disability inclusion for humanitarian practitioners, policymakers and donors.
- There needs to be an agreed set of meaningful indicators for identifying needs and capacities of people with different types of disabilities to ensure they are included.
Following these recommendations would help enable more inclusive emergency relief efforts – ones that fully recognise the rights and needs of all people with disabilities.
Brigitte Rohwerder is a Research Officer at IDS working on governance, social development, humanitarian response and conflict issues, and providing support to DFID, DFAT and EC advisors.