Situations of risk and humanitarian emergencies

Situations of risk and humanitarian emergencies

Statement from European Disability Forum (EDF) during meeting of Joint Committee on Disability Matters, Houses of the Oireachtas, Ireland, on Thursday, 28 April 2022.

People with disabilities are routinely excluded from full participation in everyday life. When society breaks down as the result of conflict or a natural event (including those we see today in greater and greater frequency caused by climate change), the barriers that people with disabilities face are exacerbated. The result is that they are more exposed to risk and abuse and have less access to aid and support.

This reality applies to all persons with disabilities. When we think of the war in Ukraine we immediately realise that somebody that uses a wheelchair would have difficulty entering an inaccessible bomb shelter.

We also need to remember that the community of people with disabilities is very diverse. A whole range of our community may experience problems in this scenario of trying to safely reach or stay safe in a bomb shelter: people requiring daily support, people with essential dietary requirements or therapies, people with psychosocial disabilities, autism, dementia, and array of neurological conditions. My intervention refers to all persons with disabilities and their families. In the scenario I describe where the person cannot get to the bomb shelter, you know their family members will also be staying behind with them.

Some specific examples of this exclusion include:

  • Inaccessible bomb shelters meaning people must stay at home and be more exposed to violence from conflict
  • Policies of residential institutionalisation, increasing the risk of exposure to a person-to-person spread pandemic and making evacuation more difficult during extreme weather events such as flooding and wildfires, or situations of conflict
  • Inaccessible life-saving aid
  • Inaccessible transit centres for displaced populations
  • Inaccessible information about emergency services and basic services, and also about longer term integration and social protection for migrants, refugees and asylum seekers
  • People living in poverty are often more likely to be impacted by climate change and persons with disabilities are often more likely to be living in poverty, exposed as they are to discrimination, unemployment and underemployment and extra costs related to disability such as accessible transport housing and other supports
  • Policy-making – as well as not including the requirements of persons with disabilities, new policy can actually have a negative impact on their lives, such as the potential for carbon pricing schemes to reinforce social inequity [i]

There is not enough official and academic documentation of the extent of this discrimination but studies after the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake showed that mortality rates of persons with disabilities were two to four times those of the rest of the population [ii].

Recent examples of crises in Europe where many of these situations have happened include the COVID pandemic [iii], 2021 flooding in Germany [iv] and the Ukraine war [v].  Ireland itself of course needs to deal with regular flooding which affects your whole population, including persons with disabilities. Development of strategies to ensure inclusive and accessible preparedness and response for flooding must be done in partnership with the disability community in Ireland.

From the examples I am giving, it is clear that there are many overlapping fields of work which must better focus on disability inclusion and better connect with each other in order to address this problem.

These fields include:

  • Humanitarian action (from emergency preparedness through response and recovery to ‘building back better’)
  • Climate action
  • Disaster risk reduction/management (DRR)
  • Civil protection and social protection

Depending on the context, policymakers and technical professionals working in these fields may have to address different specific priorities. But some of the main issues are clear and crosscutting, as identified by the 2021 review of disability inclusion in national DRR policies in Europe and Central Asia [vi]. This review, and subsequent policy paper [vii], identified priority gaps and have made detailed recommendations for change. Broadly speaking, these fall under the following categories:

  • Systematic collection and use of disability disaggregated data
  • Meaningful participation of organisations of persons with disabilities in decision-making processes
  • Accessibility (including communication, risk information, critical infrastructure, services…)
  • Improved expertise on disability inclusion
  • Dedicated budget to ensure disability inclusion

National governments, including not only Ireland, but the EU and every one of its member states, are ultimately responsible for ensuring the full inclusion of people with disabilities, through their obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). Specific articles that are particularly relevant include Article 4.3 (on participation) and Article 11 (on situations of risk and humanity emergency). This requires a whole of government approach – we see this is all the topics being discussed in your Joint Committee.

Your joint committee, with its commitment to dialogue with the disability community is a positive example of the kind of meaningful participation foreseen in Article 4.3 of the CRPD.

We would like to note here the range of expertise found in community and voluntary organisations in Ireland – this is an important resource for planning. Within the sector you have specialist knowledge, expertise and assets to quickly deploy- for example accessible transport, equipment, knowledge, and relationships that can support effective inclusive preparedness and responses.

It is essential to stress that all of these scenarios, from disability proofing to emergency management and dealing with displaced populations as a result of any crisis, require the collaborative, adequately resourced and long-term commitment of many different governmental departments. Targets such as disability inclusive emergency preparedness and response must be complemented by similar work on disability inclusive health, education, social protection and employment.

International frameworks [viii] and guidelines [ix] exist and are being implemented. The European Regional Roadmap on DRR 2021-2030 [x] is an example of how policy improvement is continuing at this level. It should be the priority of national governments to support this work and replicate it in their own settings, according to their own contexts. As well as working towards more equitable societies studies have shown that disability inclusion is an investment, not a cost [xi].

This requires building capacity in government, the disability community, and all agencies involved in disaster management and preparedness, and climate actions. Since it is critical to ensure meaningful participation of persons with disabilities through their representative organisations, EDF, and our member in Ireland, the Disability Federation of Ireland remain at your disposal for any further work you are exploring in this field.