Article by Gordon Rattray
Europe is one of the wealthiest parts of the world, yet here we still see the situation where persons with disabilities lose their lives due to a lack of preparedness. Along with COVID-19, the July 2021 flooding is a reminder that nowhere is immune to the potential impact of natural events, and that resilience-building (disaster risk reduction) and climate action must be fully inclusive. This requires a genuine commitment to accessibility, with the meaningful involvement of persons with disabilities in all decision-making processes.
The impact of the flooding – first-hand accounts
This month in Europe, persons with disabilities lost their lives because they were not evacuated on time during flooding after heavy rainfall. This event was in Germany, but EDF has since heard from members of organisations of persons with disabilities (DPOs) in Belgium, who have told us that:
- Medical staff were overwhelmed by demands for home respirators, due to the power cut
- Emergency services and information came far too late
- Disability is largely forgotten in communications from the media and authorities
These people tell us are now worried about how to recover equipment such as wheelchairs, appropriate beds, and adapted cars, how to access medical equipment and services, and how to find suitable accommodation. Considering the length of time that insurance applications take in ‘normal’ times, they know these things with the further impact their health and that of their families.
And this goes beyond physical health. There are stories too traumatic to repeat in this article, which highlight how essential it is that psychological first aid and longer-term counselling services are fully accessible to everyone, including persons with disabilities.
There are no excuses – accessibility and meaningful participation must happen now
These reports of discrimination are not one-off occurrences – it has long been known that persons with disabilities are among the most marginalised people in crisis-affected communities and are disproportionately impacted in humanitarian situations, where their mortality rate can be two to four times higher than the rest of society.
All of this means that there is no excuse. We are aware of the situation, and we know the solutions. The Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (2015-2030) clearly details the need for disability inclusion in Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) activities, specifically highlighting – among other things – the need for empowerment, leadership, and meaningful participation of persons with disabilities in DRR. This degree of participation is in line with article 4.3 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), which has been ratified by the EU and all of its member states.
What does ‘participation’ mean in practice? This will vary from context to context but persons with disabilities are often well networked with each other through their representative organisations, and know better than anyone what they require. By way of example, the DPO members that we recently contacted regarding the flooding in Europe also voluntarily came back with quick initial suggestions to improve the lack of preparedness. Some of these include:
- Accessible early warning systems and infrastructure
- Training of emergency services on the specific requirements of persons with disabilitie
- Providing older people and people with disabilities, and their support networks, with information to help their own preparedness for emergency situations
- Assistance and interpreters (including sign language) for administrative procedures with insurance and rescue services
All of these basic suggestions, if implemented, will make DRR work more disability-inclusive. However, it is important to note that they are only quick examples. There are many more ways that tweaking ongoing DRR practice will indirectly benefit many other people in society, and will be cost-effective, becoming more sustainable over time. In short, disability inclusion is good for everyone.
Putting policy into action
With other organisations, EDF is engaged in advocacy towards the European Forum for Disaster Risk Reduction (EFDRR), and COP 26, both of which are happening in November 2021.
These events are opportunities not only to highlight this discrimination and remind governments of the legal obligations; they are also an opportunity to inform DRR and climate action professionals of the multitude of guidelines and tools that already exist, where and when to use them, and the huge potential that accessible solutions provide to improve their ongoing work. Please let us know if you would like to get involved, by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org.
Quote from EDF president
European Disability Forum (EDF) is appalled to hear reports of the deaths of 12 persons with disabilities, when the residential home they were in was hit by flooding in the German town of Sinzig in July 2021. The continued policy of institutionalisation of persons with disabilities is a human rights violation that EDF is continually campaigning against. As well as further proof of disproportionate risk that persons with disabilities are exposed to because of such policies, this devastating news is another reminder that representative Organisations of Persons with Disabilities (DPOs) must be meaningfully engaged in all decision-making processes regarding social protection, Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) and emergency response strategies. We extend our deepest condolences to all the people affected by the floods last week, and especially to persons with disabilities. We should be fully included in disaster management planning in the future, so this does not happen again.
Yannis Vardakastanis, President, European Disability Forum