The earthquake and Tsunami which recently struck Japan carry a stark reminder of how natural disasters can bring widespread devastation and loss to a nation. Japan’s government indicates that approximately 6.5 million of its total population of 127 million have a disability, approximately one in 20 people. United Nations estimates indicate that over 590,000 have been displaced by these recent tragedies, and at least 10,000 have lost their lives. As the individuals and organizations worldwide struggle to find a way to provide aid, it is imperative that all efforts are inclusive and provide effective assistance to people with disabilities as well as those without.

Natural disasters provide a test of a government’s emergency plans and strategies that can help to ensure that they include people with disabilities. From the outset, a major challenge for those planning and implementing the provision of humanitarian assistance in natural disaster situations is the identification of people with disabilities, as statistics and data remains limited for many countries. The International Disability Rights Monitor (IDRM) research for the Tsunami of 2004 found practical issues, such as having a registered address with the government in event of emergencies, was often difficult for many people with disabilities. This difficulty compounded by the large numbers of people with disabilities living in poverty who are unable to afford regular housing. In addition, the lack of reliable statistics on the people with disabilities within a nation can make the development of appropriate disaster relief plans difficult.

IDRM research suggests that following the implementation of a humanitarian response to the Tsunami which struck in 2004, despite dedicated, intensive, and well-funded relief efforts, people with disabilities remained on the periphery. The majority of shelters lacked ramps and thus were inaccessible to people with mobility disabilities, and communication systems, used to inform people about the distribution of food and medical care, did not take into account the needs of people with low-hearing or deafness.

While challenges remain, some progress has been made toward ensuring that humanitarian responses to natural disasters are inclusive of people with disabilities. Following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, donor agencies including USAID took a coordinated approach with those providing assistance to people with disabilities. The United Nations established a group to advise on the provision of care to people with disabilities following the earthquake and the Global Partnership on Disability and Development developed a toolkit for long-term recovery in Haiti. By replicating and building on these efforts following natural disasters and during the recovery period that follows, improved visibility of people with disabilities can be better ensured.

Alongside these efforts, legal and policy initiatives focused on the inclusion of people with disabilities have also been developed. International organizations including the United Nations and the World Bank have worked to raise awareness among their operational staff on the importance of ensuring the inclusion of disabilities in emergency responses. In addition, Article 11 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) addresses situations of risk and humanitarian assistance, and asks that state parties take all appropriate measures to ensure the safety of people with disabilities in times of natural disasters. Coupled with other policy initiatives by humanitarian agencies and good practices by disability organizations, the CRPD provides the potential for an inclusive humanitarian response that is fully inclusive of people with disabilities.

Learn more about IDRM research on Disability and Early Tsunami Relief Efforts in India, Indonesia and Thailand

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