by Mary Keogh.
The Haitian earthquake brings a stark reminder of how natural disasters can bring widespread devastation and loss to a country. This destruction is further compounded when disaster hits a country like Haiti where poverty is rife. Haiti ranks 149th of 179 countries in the United Nations Development Programme Human Development Index and the majority of its citizens earn below US$2 per day. As Haiti emerges from the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, a seemingly insurmountable task is ahead of aid agencies, NGO’s and humanitarian organisations. A global humanitarian response is currently underway, with a daunting task for agencies on the ground as they attempt to coordinate vast amounts of aid relief and get it to people who require it urgently. As with most humanitarian responses, the challenge to provide effective assistance to everyone can be difficult and this difficulty can be magnified when ensuring those with additional needs are included.
For the moment, discussions about policies and good practice may seem trivial in face of the current crisis in Haiti. It is vital in order to save lives however that there is an ongoing exchange of information and practice between mainstream humanitarian and disability organisations. It is a known fact that people with disabilities are the most vulnerable in natural disasters. A major challenge from the outset for those coordinating humanitarian assistance is the identification of people with disabilities as statistics and data remains limited for many countries. It is estimated that 7% of Haiti’s population (approximately 630,000 people) have a disability with over 50% under the age of 15. Alongside unreliable statistics, people with disabilities are generally isolated or marginalized from communities making them invisible to relief efforts. Research by the International Disability Rights Monitor after the Tsunami of 2004 found that despite dedicated, intensive and well-funded relief efforts that disabled people remained on the periphery of relief efforts. Contributing factors to this included lack of basic facilities such as inaccessible shelters (the absence of a ramp making temporary shelters inaccessible to people with mobility disabilities); and inaccessible communication systems, which spread word about food and medical distribution (informal networks of communication for most the part do not consider people with hearing impairments).
In addition to the inclusion of people with disabilities in humanitarian responses is the indisputable fact that natural disaster causes injuries, which can result in long term disability. For example, it is estimated due to the Pakistan earthquake of 2005, that 70,000 people were severely injured or disabled. These injuries can be physical resulting from spinal injuries or mental or emotional issues stemming from loss of life.
These research findings are not isolated. Advocates and disability organisations have been working to increase awareness about the practical needs of people with disabilities in emergency response situations. Partnership with humanitarian organisations like the Red Cross has proved crucial to furthering this goal. Training and models of good practice are important to raise awareness among humanitarian organisations on how to include people with disabilities in emergency response plans. Organisations such as Handicap International and Christian Blind Mission have developed toolkits, which provide advice and guidance on how to make sure responses are inclusive of the needs of people with disabilities.
Alongside advocacy efforts, legal and policy initiatives have also been developed. International organisations such as the United Nations and the World Bank have a key role to play in raising awareness with their operational staff on inclusion of people with disabilities in emergency responses. Finally, from an international law perspective, Article 11 of the Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities, on situation of risk and humanitarian assistance asks that state parties take all appropriate measures to ensure the safety of disabled people in times of natural disasters.
The Convention, coupled with policy initiatives by humanitarian agencies, and good practices by disability organisations, provides the potential for an inclusive humanitarian response that is respectful of the human rights of people with disabilities and most importantly saves lives