People with disabilities ‘contributors to resilience, not victims’

United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction - New York UNHQ Liaison Office
The Conference of States Parties to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is the only human rights treaty of this millennium.
The Conference of States Parties to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is the only human rights treaty of this millennium.

NEW YORK, 2 August 2013 – Why are persons with disabilities so disproportionately affected by disasters? This was the important, if often overlooked, question presented to the largest international meeting on disability issues, at the United Nations last week.

The answer, simply put, is because disaster prevention measures are designed and implemented in many parts of the world without including or taking into account persons with disabilities. Often it is the attitude of viewing such persons as victims or burdens that prevents their inclusion.

The three-day Conference of States Parties to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities meets every year – since the Convention entered into force in 2008 – to exchange ideas on how the world can be a more inclusive place.

The Convention – the only human rights treaty of this millennium – seeks to counter such tendencies by insisting on a human-rights approach to disability, ensuring dignity for all.

‘‘The Convention confirms persons with disabilities as full and active members of the society rather than mere objects of goodwill and charity. In so doing, the Convention celebrates each individual's value and inherent self-worth,’’ said Mr Ivan Šimonović, Assistant Secretary General for Human Rights, at the opening day of the conference.

While the text of the Convention aspires for inclusion of persons with disabilities, its implementation is lacking in many sectors around the world. Article 11 of the Convention, for instance, calls on governments to protect persons with disabilities from ‘‘situations of risk’’ including disasters, yet there is much progress to be made on this front.

‘‘It is well understood that mortality for persons living with disabilities is much higher than any other group in the event of a disaster,’’ said the Chief of the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR), Ms Margareta Wahlström, addressing governments, advocacy groups and civil society at the conference.

‘‘The tragic experience of 2011 in Japan made it clear that even advanced early warning systems, preparedness scenarios and efforts to evacuate populations in danger sometimes do not address fully the diversity of disabilities,’’ she warned.

Ms Wahlström’s remark referred to figures that reveal Japan lost twice as many persons with disabilities than those without disabilities during the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

‘‘The only way to address this is to bring in men and women living with disabilities as active contributors into the designing phase of risk reduction measures,’’ she said.

The issue of disability-inclusive disaster risk reduction is now arising on several policy platforms especially as the number of persons with disabilities – already estimated at 1 billion worldwide – is expected to rise because of factors such as aging populations, increasing potential for accidents, and the predicted rise in extreme weather events.

Persons with disabilities came forward to highlight the contributions they can make towards disaster resilience at the May Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction in Geneva where discussions focused on the post-2015 framework for disaster risk reduction,

Their message was that disability-inclusive risk reduction is good for everyone: reducing vulnerability caused by ‘‘disabling conditions’’ can contribute to the overall resilience of a community.

Several governments at the conference expressed their will to move towards inclusion. Australia announced reforms to its public services that will facilitate ‘‘Australian citizens with disabilities to be active participants in their community’’.

Colombia pointed out the need for training targeted towards new leaders with disabilities ‘‘aimed at their active participation in the design of public policies that promote social inclusion and proper living standards for the entire population’’.

One of the main issues cited at the conference was the lack of data on disability, which inhibits inclusive policies.

In light of this, UNISDR is currently conducting an online survey for persons with disabilities to help frame a better collective understanding of their needs before and in times of disaster.

The ongoing discussion around disability-inclusive disaster risk reduction promises to advance this year’s International Day for Disaster Reduction, on 13 October, which will highlight voices of persons with disabilities.

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