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Focus on disability: UN disaster survey is good news

Source(s):  Science and Development Network (SciDevNet)

The voices of disabled people are finally being included in disaster planning — a welcome move, says Sue Coe.

The UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) has launched the world's first global consultation on the hazards and risks disabled people are exposed to in disaster zones, to inform the post-2015 development agenda on disaster risk reduction. The results will be announced on International Day for Disaster Reduction on 13 October, which has disability as its theme this year.

UNISDR is to be congratulated on investigating this important yet overlooked area. Humanitarian crises disproportionately — and negatively — impact disabled people.

They are even more vulnerable than usual in humanitarian emergencies and can suffer high mortality and morbidity rates. When evacuations happen, disabled people are often left behind — forgotten, abandoned and unable to access emergency evacuation procedures, as emergency response plans have not included universal accessibility.

When a natural disaster or conflict hits a community, mechanisms are not in place to include them in the fast 'sweep' of aid that descends in a crisis. Facilities that are rapidly set up are often inaccessible to disabled people. For example, those with sensory impairments often cannot access communications on emergency aid distribution.

Disabled people are mostly excluded from mainstream development work, so it is not surprising that they have not been included in disaster risk reduction processes. Disabled people's organisations (DPOs) are still not routinely consulted.

I was once trained in disaster preparedness by a leading agency, which carefully outlined its 'fully consultative' process. When I saw photographs of an 'excellent' example, water and sanitation points were clearly inaccessible to the disabled. I asked if the consultation had included DPOs — or any disabled people. It had not.

Disasters also create large numbers of impaired people. For example, an estimated 200,000 extra people will live with long-term disability due to injuries from the 2010 Haiti earthquake. [1] Many agencies do not account for this in their response plans, a problem clearly seen in Haiti.

Two concerns are raised in the news story: that all impairment groups should be surveyed, and that the survey should be viewed as the starting point of a more detailed understanding about responses to disability in emergencies, rather than a complete picture in itself.

These are legitimate concerns that UNISDR should acknowledge and act on. Disability surveys, where they have happened, have tended to focus on issues relating to males with physical impairments, as they have been the people most accessible to researchers.

But the point remains that UNISDR is at last seeking the voices of people with impairments to improve disaster preparedness and response processes. The research is important because the root of exclusion in humanitarian crises is the lack of voices of disabled people in disaster work.

Here's hoping the consultation yields responses that finally and firmly meet the access and inclusion needs of disabled people in disaster response.

Sue Coe has worked in international development for 25 years across Africa, Asia, Europe and the Middle East. Now a development and disability inclusion consultant, she previously worked for World Vision, Practical Action (formerly ITDG), VSO and Action on Hearing Loss (formerly RNID). Coe can be contacted at

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  • Publication date 16 Aug 2013

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