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How to make disasters less deadly for the disabled

A man with a physical disability is carried by a community member to a flood platform in a village in western Nepal during a community DRR drill Nepal Risk Reduction Consortium

Early and accessible information about pending disasters, relief and aid dissemination are crucial to improve disaster risk reduction and relief programming for people with disabilities, say experts.

“A lot of the risk people face in disasters comes from poverty and social marginalization – where people live, what they live in, and their ability to move matters immensely when it comes to risk,” Myroslava Tataryn, a research fellow at the International Centre for Evidence in Disability at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine told IRIN.

“Physical impairments can mean people rely on other people to help them move…Accessible information about basic safety and coping is crucial,” she said.

Research has shown that in disasters, people with disabilities are among the most vulnerable. If their impairment affects their ability to move or communicate, they are not only at greater risk of death, injury and isolation, but may also struggle to access humanitarian assistance and information about relief services available. Just as hard as it is for people with disabilities to get information, humanitarian agencies are also struggling to learn their needs.

Research by Christian Blind Mission (CBM), an international organization working with people with disabilities in developing countries, has shown that communities and governments lack information about the needs and capacities of persons with disabilities, and therefore frequently exclude them from disaster plans and protocols.

People with disabilities should know of ways to become more “resilient” as well as risk reduction practices and services, while humanitarians must also be informed of where people with disabilities live and how best to provide them care, say activists who call for a “paradigm shift”: People with disabilities must be seen not as passive recipients of humanitarian care, but rather, as equal participants in disaster risk reduction.

Informing humanitarians

In the wake of several disasters in Pakistan, including a major earthquake in 2005, activists were disturbed by the lack of attention paid to people with disabilities.

“We knew we needed to connect people with disabilities and disabled people’s organizations (DPOs) with humanitarian organizations before and during disasters so they could be reached after the disaster hit,” Atif Sheikh, the director of the Special Talent Exchange Program (STEP) who also has a disability, a leading DPO in Islamabad told IRIN.

STEP, with assistance from international organizations such as Handicap International, runs the Information Resource Centre on Disability (IRCD).

Established in Pakistan in 2009, IRCD is a national database of persons with disabilities including their national identity card numbers, basic facts about their disabilities – physical, mental, intellectual – and their locations. Data is collected through a network of DPOs, which, STEP admits is not scientific or comprehensive, but still helpful.

 “The database was helpful after the 2010 floods because we at least knew where our constituents were living. Information is crucial to all of this work – keeping operational humanitarian staff aware of where people are and what kind of assistance they need from hygiene to food to medical care,” Sheikh said.

The database in Pakistan is two-way: it disseminates information about people with disabilities to aid workers, and information about services to people with disabilities.

According to the Forced Migration Review journal, the Pakistani database was effective in getting information to people with disabilities about food distribution systems, medical outreach services, distribution of cash and food grants, and cash-for-work programmes suitable for people with disabilities.

The Sphere Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Humanitarian Response encourage humanitarian actors to disaggregate data in their assessments, programming, and monitoring and evaluation tools by, among other things, noting if there is a disability involved.

However Handicap International has critiqued the Sphere recommendation as insufficient to “mainstream a highly heterogeneous group such as [people with disabilities]” and calls for more specificity: noting the type of disability.

Informing people with disabilities

Activists in Vietnam have noted that some commonly used early warning systems – such as horns or flags – offer little help to people with auditory or visual disabilities.

While the Hyogo Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, an agreement signed in 2005 that promotes reduction of hazard vulnerabilities and risks,  ensures “equal access to appropriate training and educational opportunities for… vulnerable constituencies,” it fails to specify disability.

Experts gathered at the 2013 Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction in Geneva lamented this omission, saying that it was clear that disability “amplified risk” in disasters.

With the Hyogo Framework due to expire next year, consultations on the Post-2015 Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction are underway and have included substantial discussion on making the new draft standards disability-inclusive.


The UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) estimates 98 percent of children with disabilities in developing countries are not in school and may miss out on school-based DRR education.

The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Task Force on Inclusive Humanitarian Action made accessibility of information about available services for children with disabilities one of its key principles.

In Indonesia, Arbeiter-Samariter-Bund, a German social welfare organization, runs DRR programmes outside of school settings – including basic information sharing and some practice drills – for children with disabilities.

Bridging the information gap

While data on deaths of people with disabilities in disasters is not systematically recorded, the mortality rate of disabled people in the wake of the March 2011 Japan earthquake was recorded at twice that of people without disabilities.

The UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) has worked with disability organizations worldwide to focus this year’s International Day for Disaster Risk Reduction next month on “living with disability and disasters”.

A UNISDR survey is collecting, among other things, data about the degree to which people with disabilities and their caretakers have information about disaster preparedness plans and resources.  

David Singh of UNISDR told IRIN from Geneva that the most revealing initial data coming in from the more than two thousand people who have thus far completed the survey on-line (as well as on paper in at least two countries) is “seventy to eighty percent of people with disabilities have never participated in a DRR programme in any form”.

In Nepal, where there are longstanding predictions of a major earthquake, Handicap International is trying to identify organizations of disabled persons in Kathmandu to act as focal points for humanitarian actors in the case of disaster.

“In both disaster preparedness and relief, people with disabilities need to be able to access information and services like anyone else,” Sarah Blin, country director for Handicap International in Nepal told IRIN.

The Nepal government’s strategy for disaster risk management calls for the prioritization of special DRR programmes targeting people with disabilities.

Elsewhere mobile phone technology for DRR has been promoted to target vulnerable populations, including people with disabilities and their caregivers.

A text message programme in Pakistan assigned a numbering system for complaints ranging from 0-9 to help 2011 flood survivors in Sindh, Pakistan’s southernmost province – including people with disability and others with low literacy rates – more easily give feedback on relief efforts.

According to Sheikh, the Pakistani activist, people with disabilities in many developing countries facing the brunt of damages are often made to feel “useless” during disasters and “need to understand and demand that we can and must participate”.

The World Health Organization estimates approximately 15 percent of the world’s population lives with a disability.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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