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Disability is not Inability: International Day for Disaster Reduction

Nothing About Us Without Us Sign at the 2013 Annual Conference on Independent LivingAshton Rosin

This year’s International Day for Disaster Reduction, organized by the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) and UN-ENABLE, was attended by individuals from an unprecedented 120 different countries. The day was honored with interactive awareness-generating campaigns and the development of platforms for accessible grassroots advocacy for people with disabilities across the globe.

This week of energetic activities was kicked off at the UN Headquarters in New York on October 10th and extended out to rallies in Nigeria, a creative competition in Peru, high level discussion forums in Europe and the U.S., and marches in the Caribbean and Southeast Asia. At the same time, a new disability-inclusive, community-based disaster risk management toolkit was rolled out in Fiji. Films, dances, and debates that included people with and without disabilities across the world engaged participants in a day that symbolized the importance of disaster planning and risk reduction.

This celebration was a means of garnering attention for current findings regarding disaster and its effect on people with disabilities. Results from UNISDR’s recently published survey of people living with disabilities and how they cope with disaster solutions is monumental in nature, as it is the first ever UN global survey of its kind. Furthermore, this is the largest and most diverse group of people with disabilities ever to be consulted regarding disaster management planning in their communities. The survey was launched to discover why people with disabilities die or are injured in disproportionate numbers during disasters.

The 5,700 individuals who completed the survey illustrated vivid anecdotes about their experiences and difficulties to demonstrate how only 20% of them are able to evacuate immediately without difficulty in the event of a disaster. Most participants noted that they could evacuate, but with varying degrees of difficulty, and 6% were unable to evacuate at all. A participant exclaimed that, “I can’t hear sirens, [so] when there is severe weather, I have to stay awake to watch storms until all gone.” 

Many participants of the study noted that they rely on family members and neighbors for survival, thus putting more lives in danger because there is a lack of precaution and infrastructure in place to serve people with disabilities during a disaster.

The study found that if given additional time, the proportion of people who are able to evacuate almost doubles, signifying the necessity for accessible early warning systems that deliver messages to people with mobility or communication challenges. This man describes such a phenomenon when he says, “If I have prior knowledge bad weather is going to occur overnight, I sleep in my wheelchair so that I can take cover quickly.”

“This International Day was spurred by a need for a global conversation about the issues faced by one billion persons living with disabilities in a disaster prone world, who have been somewhat invisible. The response by millions to the theme ‘A not so obvious conversation — living with disabilities and disasters’, is actually proving that this is a conversation people want to have”, remarked Ms. Wahlström, the Head of the UNISDR.

Beyond shocking statistics, the root of the problem is founded in the reality that people with disabilities are not included in disaster planning and are not consulted about their needs. It is evident that a large portion of disaster related deaths of people with disabilities are somewhat preventable, if their needs are not neglected in the planning process.

Survey respondents provided recommendations on how best to improve outcomes of people with disabilities in the event of sudden disaster. Many noted that garnering awareness in the community is key to achieving disaster risk reduction. Neighbors need to understand what kind of obstacles people with disabilities might face in the event of a catastrophe. Furthermore, wheelchair access is essential for successful evacuations as well as the development of accessible emergency shelters after an evacuation. Finally, technology can be used to complement such efforts by developing apps that address disaster risk reduction for smart phones.

The results of this survey will be used to advocate for the inclusion of people with disabilities in the 2015 World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction when UN member states meet in Japan to formulate a new global framework for disaster risk reduction. People with disabilities need to be included in every aspect of disaster risk development, from preparation, to recovery, to reduction.

People with disabilities will continue to feel the effects of exclusionary disaster reduction planning as they are evidently more likely to die or be injured in a disaster. It is therefore necessary for local, national, and international agencies to promote disability-inclusive policies to generate disaster resilience for people with and without disabilities alike.

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