Protecting people with disabilities in times of disaster | Jo Scheuer

11 Oct 2013

  Lahore resident Jamila Hasan and her disabled daughter negotiate their way across a flooded street. Photo: Tariq Saeed, IRIN

Approximately 10 percent of the world's population lives with a disability. Often ignored, forgotten or stigmatized, people with disabilities not only struggle for daily recognition, but face life-threatening challenges in times of disaster.
Those whose mobility is impaired cannot access evacuation routes; those with visual or hearing impairment don’t receive early warnings; and those dependant on health and other community infrastructure suffer disproportionately from disaster.

During the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011, the death rate amongst people with disabilities was twice that of the general population, and when Hurricane Katrina hit the US in 2006, the immobile poor were disproportionately left behind in New Orleans. Fourteen percent of those who remained were living with a disability that made them physically unable to evacuate, while 23 percent were caring for a disabled person.

October 13 is the International Day for Disaster Risk Reduction. The theme this year is ‘disability and disasters,’ a welcome move to draw awareness to the difficulties those with disabilities face in times of disaster.

157 countries have now signed the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities pledging, among other things, to protect persons with disabilities during conflict, humanitarian emergencies and disasters. In planning and preparing for disasters, however, the needs of those with disabilities are still often ignored or minimized. This has to change.

Working with governments and communities, we must ensure that protecting people with disabilities is intentional, pervasive and well planned. Beginning with disaster management legislation, the rights and needs of the disabled must be explicitly recognized and budgeted for. Critical partners, such as emergency services, need to understand the special needs of those with disabilities, both before and after a disaster, and implementing agencies, including UNDP, must go the extra mile to ensure that emergency training and supplies reflect the needs of this group. And we must remember that those with disabilities, like all vulnerable groups, are not just passive victims. They have a role to play in disaster planning. They must be trained and helped so they can contribute.

With our local partners, we should continue to carry out risk identification and hazard mapping in communities keeping the most vulnerable in mind, as well as provide further assistance to organizations already working with vulnerable groups.

We have already made steady progress in decreasing the devastating effects of disasters. Going forward, we need to look at how we can fill these gaps and protect those whose needs may otherwise be left off the agenda.

Talk to us: How can people with disabilities be better included in strategies for disaster risk reduction?

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