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Inclusive Disaster and Emergency Management for Persons with Disabilities

Posted by Nirmita Narasimhan at Sep 17, 2013 10:00 AM |
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This report is a review of the needs, challenges, effective policies, and practices for inclusive disaster management practices. It was submitted to the National Disaster Management Authority of India (NDMA) on September 17, 2013 for their action.

Note: The report is co-authored by Deepti Samant Raja and Nirmita Narasimhan.


Persons with disabilities face unique challenges during every stage of emergency and disaster management due to inaccessible warnings, evacuation, response (including shelters, camps, and food distribution), and long-term recovery efforts. Additionally, disruption to physical, social, economic, and environmental networks and support systems affect people with disabilities in greater proportions.

Common experiences reveal that people with disabilities are more likely to be left behind or abandoned during evacuation in disasters and conflicts. They may be separated from their family members and caregivers, as well as their assistive devices (e.g. wheelchairs, prosthetics) or may be unable to operate them in a disaster (e.g. aids that run on electricity or batteries).

Shelters and relief camps are frequently inaccessible to persons with disabilities, and they may be unable to easily access food and water distribution centres. The paucity of statistical data on persons with disabilities and limited knowledge on how to respond to their needs is another factor that heightens their vulnerability in a disaster or emergency situation (Smith, Jolley & Schmidt, 2012). Resources and necessities may become scarce during a disaster situation, and there is a potential for discrimination on the basis of disability in such scarcity. Common perception is that inclusion and accessibility only matter to a small percentage of the population and thus are not cost effective. Leaving aside the fact that persons with disabilities are not a small and irrelevant percentage, accessible and disability inclusive approaches in fact benefit many others.

Elderly persons are one of the most affected groups in a disaster or emergency situation. Aging and disability are linked with each other, and many persons develop disabling conditions as they age including limited mobility, low vision, and hearing difficulties. They will significantly benefit from physical and communication accessibility in disaster preparedness, evacuation, relief, and recovery. Similarly, providing information in multiple formats beyond text such as graphical and oral formats can make this important information available and accessible to people with low or no literacy as well as children.

The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is the first international human rights treaty that specifically addresses the rights and freedoms of persons with disabilities (Lord, Samant Raja & Blanck, 2012). The CRPD was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2006 and opened for signatures on March 30, 2007. The CRPD had one of the shortest periods to come into force as the required twenty ratifications were achieved barely a month after it opened for signatures. The entire CRPD and its eight operating principles raise the need to make all disaster and emergency planning accessible and inclusive, failing which States Parties will not be able to meet their obligations under the CRPD. Additionally, the CRPD is specific about the need to make emergency and disaster management operations inclusive of persons with disabilities. Article 11 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) (UN Enable, 2006) on "Situations of Risk and Humanitarian Emergencies" states 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.

The CRPD's direct mention of disasters and emergencies represented the first major global treaty to focus attention on the needs of persons with disabilities in disaster events. In addition, Article 9 on Accessibility requires States Parties to ensure that people can access, on an equal basis with others the physical environment, transportation services, information and communications technologies and systems and all public facilities and services which include emergency services and facilities. Article 9 specifically mentions the need to make "information, communications and other services, including.emergency services accessible." Declarations and initiatives before that such as the Hyogo Framework for Action, which is the widely accepted blueprint for Disaster Risk Reduction in countries, failed to mention and take into account the importance of addressing disability issues.

As of September 16, 2013, 134 countries have ratified and 156 have signed the CRPD (UN Enable, 2013). States parties to the CRPD have to work towards making disaster risk reduction and all stages of the disaster and emergency management process accessible and inclusive of persons with disabilities. Article 32 on International Cooperation focuses on the need to ensure that international cooperation initiatives, including development programs, are accessible and inclusive of people with disabilities. States are encouraged to support capacity building and the exchange of knowledge and best practices, strengthen research collaborations and access to scientific knowledge, and offer technical and economic assistance to help meet a state's obligations under the convention. This provision is very relevant to the aid and humanitarian relief operations conducted by development and aid agencies and international NGOs. It promoted increased technical cooperation on disability and reiterates the need to include disability in all development and aid programming.

Many of the articles of the Convention intersect with different aspects of the disaster management cycle such as education and employment which are relevant in recovery and reconstruction. A few relevant articles are given below.

  • Article 9 on Accessibility requires States Parties to ensure that people can access, on an equal basis with people without disabilities, physical environments, transportation services, information and communications content, technologies, and systems and all public facilities and services which certainly apply to emergency services and facilities. Article 9 specifically mentioned the need to make "information, communications and other services, including.emergency services" accessible.
  • Article 31 on Statistics and Data Collection encourages States Parties to collect statistical and research data that can help in formulating and implementing effective policies to give effect to the different articles of the Convention.
  • Article 26 on Habilitation and Rehabilitation focuses on organizing, strengthening and extending comprehensive habilitation and rehabilitation services and programmes which are important during the response and immediate recovery following serious injuries in disasters and emergencies, as well as for long-term recovery and rebuilding. Other major declarations that raise the need for inclusive disaster and emergency management include the Yogyakarta declaration on disaster risk reduction in Asia and the Pacific 2012, the Phuket Declaration on Disaster Preparedness for Persons with Disabilities in 2009, and the Biwako Millennium Framework for Action 2003-2012. The Hyogo Framework for Action, adopted in 2005 at the World Conference on Disaster Reduction, is considered to be a blueprint to guide nations in their disaster risk reduction efforts until 2015. The framework which was signed by 168 countries does not address disability specifically, resulting in continuing exclusion of persons with disabilities in most DRR plans (Scherrer, 2013).

However, efforts are underway to promote the inclusion of disability in the next iteration of the Hyogo Framework. The goal of this report is to serve as a primer on the needs of persons with disabilities in disasters and emergencies, and to provide a comprehensive compilation of effective policies, practices and strategies for inclusive disaster and emergency management. This report utilizes a literature review of policy, practice, and research documentation on the different dimensions of inclusive disaster and emergency management.

A diverse set of sources were compiled for this review including:

  • research articles, reports, and evaluations of responses in past disasters
  • country policies and initiatives for disaster management
  • best practice manuals and handbooks, and
  • reports from advisory groups and discussion forums

Click to read the full report here.

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