Geneva Health Forum Archive

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People with Disabilities at Times of Disaster and Crisis

Author(s): Nicolas Heeren1
Affiliation(s): 1Department of Programmes, Methods & Techniques, Handicap International, Lyon, France
Key issues:

Recent natural disasters in the world (Gujarat, Bam, Kashmir and Yogyakarta) and man-made crises (war in Sierra Leone, Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan) have unfortunately shown that people with disabilities tend to be disproportionally victims of disaster and conflict. We know that among the poor a much larger part of the population is living in a disabling situation compared to the overall population. An HI study found that 60% of the people with disabilities were overlooked in one specific emergency response. Indeed, disability is often an integral part of emergency situations, and yet it is not taken into account by most of the players in the rush during an emergency. People with disabilities should enjoy the same rights as anybody else. Disability results from a combination of temporary or permanent impairment, and environmental and sociocultural barriers. Existing coping mechanisms of people with disabilities are confronted with a new environment while their support system is also dramatically altered by the crisis. The following list highlights some factors that may make a PWD more vulnerable during an emergency situation: - PWDs tend to be invisible in emergency registration systems. - Lack of awareness and misinterpretation of the situation and communication difficulties (What happened? What do I do? Where is my family?) lead to a lack of comprehension on the part of the PWDs of the disaster and its consequences. - PWDs are often excluded from disaster response efforts and particularly affected by changes in terrain resulting from disaster. - Because of inadequate physical accessibility, or loss or lack of mobility aids or appropriate assistance, PWDs are often deprived from rescue and evacuation services, relief access, safe location/adequate shelter, water and sanitation, etc. - Emotional distress and trauma caused by a crisis situation often have long-term consequences on people with disability. These challenges can be met through anticipated action by both specialised and generalist actors. In the disaster context, two cases have to be differentiated: a) people who were disabled before the actual disaster took place; b) people who have become disabled as a result of the disaster. Whereas, for the latter group, medical interventions and access to health services (including psychological support) have to be organised in the first days after an emergency, for the former group, while medical attention is useful, more often social and economic interventions are necessary. This also means that the many other actors involved in emergency responses should become disability confident. The intervention and debate will focus on practical answers HI has been able to implement in recent crises, both natural and manmade. It will include special needs and issues from the specialisation/mainstreaming debate; disability services; awareness and training; early warning systems; adapted search and rescue; refugee camp management; and the link with long-term development processes. Finally, the special case of psychological trauma suffered by both victims and medical professionals will be addressed.

Meeting challenges:  How to guarantee the right to aid and services during an emergency for people with disabilities? How to take into account people with disabilities before, during and after emergencies through direct action of specialised actors and create disability confidence among generalist emergency actors?
Conclusion (max 400 words):

If we want to reduce the disproportioned impact of disasters on people with disabilities, a combined effort of specialised and generalist actors, both local and international, needs to be developed. In absence of genuine disaster-preparedness, clever mix interventions can reduce greatly the number of people who suffer from crisis and disaster.

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