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Give people with disabilities better protection in conflict and crises

‘It is time for the international community to move away from the medical and charity approach.’

An Iraqi boy, who fled Iraq’s Mosul due to violence by the so-called Islamic State, pushes a man in a wheelchair in Khazer refugee camp, east of the city, in November 2016. Alaa Al-Marjani/REUTERS
An Iraqi boy, who fled Iraq’s Mosul due to violence by the so-called Islamic State, pushes a man in a wheelchair in Khazer refugee camp, east of the city, in November 2016.

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Ever since Odai contracted a virus when he was a child, he can’t hear properly. He communicates with his family through hand gestures and used to enjoy helping them out on the family farm in Gaza.

Everything changed in July 2014, when the farm came under attack from Israeli airstrikes. 

A siren went off, but Odai couldn’t hear the warning. A rocket struck the ground near him, throwing him into the air. By the time he landed on his back, he was paralysed.  

Now, Odai uses a wheelchair. Because he lives in a second-storey apartment, his family members have to help him get up and down the stairs. When he recounted his story to the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights, he said that since the attack he has been too afraid to visit the farm. 

Odai’s story is one of thousands from around the world that show the realities of living in a conflict zone as a person with a disability. Even if there are bomb sirens, a deaf person like Odai cannot hear them. As a wheelchair user, it would be difficult for him to quickly access shelter in a basement. A person with a psychosocial disability might not be able to react to a dangerous situation quickly enough to flee. While international humanitarian law requires certain protocols – such as warning a civilian population before an attack – these are seldom designed with the needs of disabled people in mind. As seen with Odai, ignoring the disabled population’s needs can leave them even more vulnerable in a conflict or crisis situation..

Today and tomorrow, the International Disability Alliance (IDA), the Government of Norway, and the Government of Ghana host the second annual Global Disability Summit online to bring together governments, activists, and experts to discuss how the international community can ensure that the needs of disabled people in conflict zones are met, and that humanitarian responses are designed with different levels of ability in mind. 

At least 15 percent of the world’s population lives with some form of disability; in conflict zones, this number is often higher. In Afghanistan, for example, more than three decades of active violence and military operations have contributed to countless civilian injuries from crossfire, landmines, suicide attacks, and airstrikes. As a result, almost 80 percent of the adult population lives with a disability. Meanwhile, in Syria, 36 percent of the internally displaced population lives with a disability for similar reasons. 

These policy changes must be grounded in understanding disability as part of the human experience, not a disease that needs to be cured.

Even though hundreds of aid organisations came to Lebanon after the war in Syria broke out, only a handful provided services to people with disabilities. According to the Lebanese disability rights organisation Mousawat, most organisations didn’t collect disability-disaggregated data at the beginning of the conflict, nor did they consider the accessibility of their services and programmes – just one example of the kind of oversight that leads to humanitarian aid being delivered in locations that are inaccessible, or in parcels that can’t be handled by people in wheelchairs or on crutches. 

People with disabilities are also marginalised in peace processes and conflict resolution. According to a 2019 University of Edinburgh study, only 6.6 percent of all peace agreements made between 1990 and 2018 referenced disability. Both UN Security Council Resolution 2475 (adopted in 2019) and the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) Guidelines on Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities in Humanitarian Action aim to outline the ways that disabled communities can be better included in these efforts, but their impact has yet to be felt.

This is why we need the international community to take concrete steps now to ensure that this population is no longer ignored. First, governments need to consult with experts to train their armed forces on disability rights to better understand how to protect this population. These perspectives should be incorporated into military manuals that detail how operations are conducted. When UN agencies report on armed conflicts, they should include research on how disabled communities are impacted by the conflict. People with disabilities must be included in conflict resolution and peace processes; sustainable peace is only achievable if the entire affected community has ownership and investment in it, and this can only be achieved by ensuring that all are involved in its construction.

Humanitarian organisations must consult people with disabilities on the design, delivery, and monitoring of humanitarian responses. Currently, refugee and displacement camps often lack procedures to identify people with disabilities, leaving them unequipped to serve them. Collecting data on the disabled population is the first step to ensure that programmes are planned to serve their needs. Donors have a responsibility to ensure that their support leaves no one behind and should make accessible services a requirement for programmes to be funded.

When designing inclusive humanitarian responses, it is also important to recognise the full diversity of the disabled community. For example, while it is important for a sexual assault and gender-based violence clinic in a refugee camp to have wheelchair ramp access, this should not be the only requirement. Anyone working at the clinic should be trained on disability rights and prepared to serve people with a range of different disabilities – including physical, sensory, intellectual, and psychosocial impairments. There should be a protocol in place to offer home visits or consultations to people who are unable to access the clinic, as well as informational materials available in multiple formats, including easy read.

Ultimately, these policy changes must be grounded in understanding disability as part of the human experience, not a disease that needs to be cured. It is time for the international community to move away from the medical and charity approach to disability and instead take responsibility as a society to remove the barriers that persons with disabilities face in times of conflict, as they also do in peace.

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