We've been on the ground in Haiti conducting a series of workshops on facilitating access and promoting inclusion for people with disabilities. The workshops were based on our resource kit for field workers entitled "Disabilities among Refugees and Conflict-Affected Populations" and tailored to address the needs of people with disabilities in the wake of a natural disaster.
More than 100 people participated in the trainings, representing international and local NGOs, UN agencies and the Haitian government. Haitians with disabilities also participated in a panel discussion during the workshops about the challenges they face in post-earthquake Haiti – ranging from discrimination and social stigma to difficulties accessing services and gaining employment.
The Women's Refugee Commission has released the first major report to address the critical needs of refugees and people displaced within their own countries who suffer from physical, sensory or mental disabilities.
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that between 7 and 10 percent of the world's population lives with disabilities. It can therefore be calculated that between 2.5 and 3.5 million of the world's 35 million displaced people are disabled. In fact, the number of people living with disabilities may be even higher among those who have fled civil conflict, war or natural disasters.
Yet sadly, people with disabilities remain among the most hidden, neglected and socially excluded of any population in the world today. They are often not counted in refugee registration drives or identified in data collection. Because of physical and social barriers, they are unable to access mainstream assistance programs offered to other refugees. Their potential is seldom recognized and they are often seen as a problem for their families and communities, rather than a resource. What’s more, the loss of traditional caregivers—extended families, neighbors—during displacement can leave them extremely vulnerable.
The report “Disabilities among Refugees and Conflict-Affected Populations” is the culmination of a six-month project led by the Women’s Refugee Commission and co-funded by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). It is based on fact-finding missions in Ecuador, Yemen, Jordan, Thailand and Nepal (as well as significant field input from Darfur and Kenya), interviews with United Nations agencies and local organizations in refugee settings, and focus group discussions with refugees and others uprooted from their homes. The situation of Colombian, Somali, Iraqi, Burmese, Bhutanese and Sudanese populations was studied in refugee camps and urban environments, in both emergency and protracted situations, with a particular focus on women, children and adolescents.
The report notes serious problems with the physical layout and infrastructure of the camps—few services are accessible to people with disabilities, including toilets, shelters and health facilities. In general, no special accommodations are made for getting food and other supplies that refugees with disabilities need on a daily basis. Many are housebound, rarely leaving their shelters. Not surprisingly, their voices go unheard in decision-making activities within their communities.
“Disabilities among Refugees and Conflict-Affected Populations” also reveals a disparity between refugee camps and urban areas: in camps there is a greater awareness about the needs of the disabled and better services than in urban environments, where refugees with disabilities are unable to access services offered by the host government and virtually no one is providing special assistance to them. The Women’s Refugee Commission also found greater discrimination and stigmatization towards the mentally disabled population; assistance programs, when available, tend to focus on those with physical and sensory disabilities.
Yet key findings also include a few positive developments, in particular with regard to children in refugee camps. Many children with disabilities are attending primary schools, some of which have special education teachers. For the parents of the disabled, some camps offer support groups as well as home visits for instruction in sign language, braille and rehabilitative exercises.
To reinforce the report’s findings and improve protection and services for refugees with disabilities, the Women’s Refugee Commission has created a resource kit to provide practical guidance for UNHCR and humanitarian agency field staff. Major recommendations include making refugee camps accessible to people with disabilities and ensuring that they have full and equal access to all services provided.