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Building back better

Disability inclusion in disaster risk management
Published: 
Thursday, August 3, 2017

When most people think about their response to a disaster happening, their evacuation plan generally involves movement: whether it is moving quickly through an emergency exit door or descending a staircase. But have you ever stopped to think about how a person living with a motor disability will be able to follow that same evacuation plan? What about how a person with impaired mental functions will be able to comprehend and comply with evacuation instructions?

Considering that people living with one or more disabilities are disproportionately affected by disasters and experience higher rates of morbidity and mortality, it is imperative that policies be crafted in such a way so as to include their input.

Almost 12 per cent of the population in the Greater Caribbean is thought to live with a disability; this amounts to nearly 66 million people in the region (ECLAC, 2012). As a result, regional disaster preparedness cannot be a one-size-fits-all concept. In a region with inherent vulnerabilities to disasters, the added effect of climate change only serves to remind leaders in the Greater Caribbean that disaster risk management (DRM) must be done with a disability inclusive approach.

In an emergency, a person’s ability to follow an evacuation or disaster risk mitigation plan can be severely restricted because of the type of disability they have.

For example, individuals with hearing impairments may not hear alarms or sirens warning them about an impending natural hazard while those will cognitive disabilities may struggle to understand safety instructions from emergency personnel.

In 2013, the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction office (UNISDR) published a survey which stated that only 20 per cent of more than 5,000 disabled individuals interviewed in over 126 countries were capable of immediate evacuation in the case of an emergency without any difficulty while the remainder reported varying degrees of difficulty (UNISDR, 2013).

A disaster strike can also exacerbate existing physical impairments. During the 2010 Haiti earthquake, the impact of falling infrastructure caused spinal cord injuries, amputations etc., leading to further impairments (Stough, 2015).

In an emergency, a person’s ability to follow an evacuation or disaster risk mitigation plan can be severely restricted because of the type of disability they have.

For example, people with hearing impairments may not hear alarms or sirens warning them about an impending natural hazard while those will cognitive disabilities may struggle to understand safety instructions from emergency personnel.

During disasters, people with disabilities are also sometimes separated from their caregivers and/or their assistive equipment which can hamper their chances of escaping unscathed. Additional focus must therefore be placed on taking into account the needs of this sect of society in the event of a disaster and during disaster recovery process.

In the aftermath of a natural hazard, not all sectors of the population are equally affected: children, people living with disabilities and the elderly are at a higher risk of impact. Compounding this existing scenario is the lack of clear disaster management policy and strategy which speaks to treating vulnerable groups specifically. (WHO, 2013)

At the recently held Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction in Cancun, Mexico in May 2017, one of the featured event included a panel discussion on the challenges and opportunities of inclusive disaster risk management.

Panelists and professionals from around the globe discussed opportunities for enhancing the participation of persons living with a disability in disaster risk planning and procedures development.

Following the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal of “Leaving No One Behind”, panelists acknowledged that it was impossible to achieve sustainable development without involving the most marginalised members of society.

In this regard, efforts across the Greater Caribbean region has made a concerted effort to strengthen the role and participation of vulnerable populations in the disaster management dialogue have been strengthened in this regard. In April 2016 the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA) partnered with international organisations such as the Red Cross, UNISDR and the European Union Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection among others to hold a “Caribbean Early Warning System Workshop”. Chief among the topics in this three day regional workshop was the integration of vulnerable persons/groups into disaster risk reduction (DRR) through the use of early warning systems.

Case studies in Haiti, Cuba, the Dominican Republic and the English-speaking Caribbean were highlighted.

In Jamaica, for instance, disability has been mainstreamed throughout the implementation of their early warning system plan which included sensitisation sessions geared towards people living with a disability in flood-prone areas.

These sessions also targeted first responders and the media in an effort to improve in a disaster situation to improve their understanding and awareness of disabilities and the media on how climate change and disasters affect vulnerable and marginalised groups (CDEMA, 2016).

Disaster risk management practitioners in the region can adopt key principles to develop a more inclusive approach. One of the simplest ways to make this happen is to:

a. Identify people living with disabilities and

b. Include them as active participants in the disaster prevention and mitigation and in the planning, implementation and monitoring of climate change policies. This can be done by removing existing barriers and enhancing capacity building programs.

Non-discrimination is an underpinning aspect of inclusive policy-making and requires a proactive approach to determining factors that can lead to exclusion.

Governments can utilise public-private partnerships to ensure comprehensive accessibility and universal design in relief structures specifically and, during reconstruction, promote “build back better” as a guiding norm.

Building back better emphasises the opportunity for the improvement of the lives of vulnerable populations in the event of a disaster through the use of sound investment and wide-ranging decision making processes.

The Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030, to which the Association of the Caribbean States subscribes, resolutely positions persons living with disabilities as the subjects and not the objects of disaster risk management policies; including this group can only serve to strengthen the region’s thrust to becoming truly resilient in the face of a disaster.

Building back better emphasises the opportunity for the improvement of the lives of vulnerable populations in the event of a disaster through the use of sound investment and

wide-ranging decision making processes.