The International Day for Disaster Reduction, held on October 13, recognizes the need to include persons with disabilities in disaster risk-reduction efforts.

This year’s theme –– “Disability and Disasters: a Not-so-obvious Conversation” –– is a call to promote and protect the rights of persons living with disabilities and to encourage their involvement in decision-making at every phase of disaster management.

Every year, over 350 million people around the world are affected by conflicts and disasters. Many belong to two groups with special needs, namely people with disabilities and elderly persons. Persons with disabilities are frequently at risk or are disproportionately affected by disasters, emergencies, and conflicts, due to various factors such as exclusion, lack of awareness, disruption of their social support networks, and physical barriers.

As a result, persons with disabilities are unable to access facilities associated with evacuation, response (including shelters, camps, and food distribution) or recovery/reconstruction.

WHO estimates that more than 1 billion people (15% of the world’s population) live with some type of disability; of this total, 2–3% experience serious functional difficulties or severe disability (200-300 million people). One of the central recommendations of the WHO World Report on Disability is that people with disabilities should be given the opportunity to participate alongside everybody else in all services or activities intended for the general public.

We can imagine the enormous impact that emergencies or conflicts have on people with disabilities, especially those with serious functional difficulties or a high level of dependence. It should be kept in mind that many elderly persons also have major functional limitations, and, moreover, that emergencies and disasters can create new groups of people with disabilities and can inflict further injuries on persons with existing disabilities, who will require support and assistance.

It is imperative to meet the basic and immediate needs of people with disabilities in emergencies, to promote and protect their rights and to strengthen their capacities, so that they can participate in all disaster management activities

Everyone affected by a disaster has the right to receive protection and assistance, thereby guaranteeing the prerequisites for a dignified life. The inclusion of persons with disabilities is part of the humanitarian imperative to act to prevent and relieve human suffering caused by disasters and armed conflicts, and nothing should be permitted to prevail against this principle.

This is an affirmation of the recognized right of all people affected by a disaster, emergency, or conflict to receive humanitarian assistance and protection, and to live in safety and dignity. Humanitarian action favors a comprehensive approach that includes prevention, preparation, rehabilitation, and reconstruction.

Inclusion of persons with disabilities

Persons with disabilities should play a role in humanitarian action. They should therefore be included in preparedness, response, recovery, and reconstruction plans. Article 11 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities establishes that “States Parties shall take, in accordance with their obligations under international law, including international humanitarian law and international human rights law, all necessary measures to ensure the protection and safety of persons with disabilities in situations of risk, including situations of armed conflict, humanitarian emergencies and the occurrence of natural disasters.”

Most preparedness and response plans for emergency events and disasters do not take account of the needs of persons with disabilities and it is even less common for persons with disabilities to be included in the management of these plans. To facilitate their integration in the areas of emergency and disaster planning, the subject of disability should be considered or included in risk assessment; in measures to reduce vulnerability and prevent risks; in adaptive response measures and in effective recovery/reconstruction and rehabilitation at the local and national levels with support from the international community.  

The inclusion of the needs of persons with disabilities at all stages of the disaster management process, and especially at the planning and preparation stages, can help significantly to reduce the vulnerability of these people and increase the effectiveness of government response and recovery efforts.

It has been observed that when the subject of disability is included in emergency/disaster management and response plans, it is easier to provide early or immediate attention to injured people and to meet the needs of persons with disabilities, such as access to health care, shelter, food, drinking water, and technical help.

It is important that persons with disabilities and the organizations that represent them should be considered not only as beneficiaries, but should also be included as partners in humanitarian action and response, and as participants in the evaluation, design, implementation, and supervision of assistance programs.

Written by Dr Armando J Vásquez Barrios
PAHO/WHO Regional Advisor on Disability and Rehabilitation