Disability sensitivity in disaster management

According to current understanding disaster management cannot be treated separately from the whole development process. It can be considered a pre-condition for sustainable development without which, development outcomes will be compromised.

Since we are looking at disability in particular as a vulnerable/excluded section of community, we will try to analyse overall development policies of Sri Lanka from an angle of disability sensitivity.

No policy for the disabled

In no policy paper related to the socio-economic development of the country were we able to find a reference to disability, let alone disability sensitivity. Some programs conducted by Social Services Department, have taken into consideration disabled people as a whole. Some specific groups of disabled people have been targeted by few other institutions (eg. armed forces have started vocational training programs for soldiers who are casualties of war). Other than these interventions - which are relatively insignificant compared to other development programs implemented in the country, no mention can be found in government policies on disability sensitive development. As this search was confined to the documented evidence available, it is not possible to comment on the quality or applicability of above mentioned programs to the current needs of the economy.

Even in major development policy declarations of Sri Lanka, references to disabled people have been nominal. One example is the publication 'Regaining Sri Lanka: Vision and Strategy for Accelerated Development' - within 252 pages this development strategy for Sri Lanka in 2002 only has one reference to disabled people.

It is commendable however that in the unofficial policy declaration of the current President of Sri Lanka - 'Mahinda Chinthana' - there are a few references to disabled people, including vocational training, 3% employment quota in institutions with more than 100 employees, making public buildings disability friendly through improving access routes and making it a priority to pass the Act on 'Rights of Disabled People'.

At a global level too, disability often takes a back seat. One good example would be the omission of disabled people from the United Nations Millennium Declaration which has 8 Millennium Development Goals, 18 targets and 48 indicators.

There is no reference at all to disabled people in the main disaster management action plan of Sri Lanka; 'Towards a Safer Sri Lanka - Road Map for Disaster Risk Management'. Furthermore there is no reference on taking special needs of disabled people into consideration in planning for disaster preparedness and response activities. As no guidelines have been issued to prepare mitigation and risk reduction plans yet, it's not possible to comment on the disability sensitivity in those plans.
Sometimes it can be argued that having no policy at all on important development issues is far better than having many policies with conflicting interests. The best option available to Sri Lanka would be to start from scratch. Let's consider the current practices related to disaster management in Sri Lanka to find out whether disability sensitivity has been incorporated in planning and implementing such practices.

Even though many government and non government organizations have started disaster management and/or development activities that have a relevance to disaster management field in Sri Lanka, only a nominal effort has been made to specify target groups other than in geographical terms. Therefore it is not possible to analyse the situation but many practitioners agree that it is only in relief and response phases of disaster management, that special emphasis has is paid to disabled people in Sri Lanka. Unfortunately field evidence suggests that even in the relief and response period, many lapses have occurred. Recent examples of poor integration of disability sensitivity in disaster management in relation to need-based relief provision include; the tsunami response in 2004 and 2005, flood response in 2003 and landslide response in 2006 and 2007. There were no special programs targeted at the needs of disabled people (or of other extremely vulnerable groups) in any of the above mentioned relief operations.

It is also sad to note that there were no references to disabled people or any attempt to address their special needs in disaster management programs focused on later phases of disaster the management cycle.

Even though there is no reference to disabled people directly, the 'Hyogo Framework of Action' spells the necessity to take into account cultural diversities, age, and other causes of vulnerability when planning for disaster risk reduction;

As a signatory to the 'Hyogo Framework of Action', Sri Lanka is bound to fulfill its obligations in near future. As many other UN declarations are increasingly becoming more sensitive to disability and other root causes of extreme poverty in their programs, there will be international pressure on the Sri Lankan government and non government institutions to incorporate disability sensitivity in their disaster management programs. Therefore it is timely to consider the main obstacles to formulate disability sensitive policies and implement them.

Unavailability of statistical data

A major barrier identified worldwide is the unavailability of statistics on disabled people. In post disaster situations, when rapid damage assessments are being performed to asses needs of affected communities, it is essential now to include necessary tools to collect disability-related information. Very often, relief operations are based on the findings and recommendations of these rapid damage assessments. In addition to this, coordination between government and non-government organizations is important in the response period as some government institutions like Social Services Department and civil society organizations working with disabled communities have important statistics related to disabled people living in an affected area. This type of resource sharing mechanism has to be planned in the preparedness phase of disaster management as otherwise miscommunications could occur easily and cooperation may not be possible up to the expected level.

Lack of expertise on addressing special needs of the disabled

In the rehabilitation and reconstruction phases, a major role can be played by experts on disability sensitive development, as many organisations working in this field do not posses the expertise needed to address the issues. One example is that many development practitioners lack the knowledge and skills to identify development needs of disabled people - this issue is being further aggravated by the diversity that can be found among disabled people themselves. When it comes to planning and implementation it is easier for field level practitioners to consider a community as one uniform, homogeneous group rather than a heterogeneous entity. Thus it is important for those who believe in the 'development with disabled' approach, to convince other practitioners on the effectiveness of taking this route. Inclusion does not mean treating disabled people as mere victims and recipients of external assistance. As discussed earlier it is also important to harness the skills and experience of disabled people, accelerate the process of development and ensure equity and inclusiveness.

Lack of structures and systems sensitive to the needs of people with disabilities

On the other hand, making things simpler and easier to use for physically or mentally impaired persons does not mean its benefits are limited to disabled people. In actual terms it makes things easier for others as well. Making structures and processes disability sensitive does not necessarily mean a new or costly exercise - it is merely a revamping of present conditions to suit people who are normally excluded and more vulnerable in society.

In disaster mitigation and preparedness phases a new problem arises, as the investment for mitigation activities is often inadequate. Generally, in this phase the available investment is diverted to power groups with political backing and as disabled communities have not organised themselves as a powerful political lobbying power, they tend to be de prioritised in this phase. In addition to this, there is a lack of proper formal and informal education and healthcare facilities suitable for the people with special needs. Generally looking at society as a whole, there seems a negative bias towards considering disabled people as a special group with special needs, this leads to their needs being neglected in disaster mitigation activities. In addition to this there is a lack of coordination between experts and decision makers.

Lack of statistics on disabled people can only be solved if information can be streamlined within the normal decision making process. Until it is compulsory to collect and analyse such information, gaps will remain, making it difficult to convince decision makers on the gravity of the problem faced by disabled people.

By looking at how efforts were made in improving gender sensitivity among policy makers, maybe we can learn how these can be adopted to disability issues.

In calculating the 'Human Development Index' (HDI), one of the tolls used is the 'Gender-related Development Index'9. Therefore it is not inconceivable to introduce a Disability related Development Index which can serve the same objective. This would draw attention to disability related issues, show that disability empowerment does not depend on the income and highlight differences between countries. Taking this a step further, it is possible to measure and analyse a Disability related Development Index at district and province level. This would give a more accurate picture of the impact of various policies and programs on disabled.

Disability sensitivity in disaster management could also be improved if existing guidelines on disaster preparedness and response plans at Grama Niladhari, Divisional Secretariat and District levels included specially designed programs which catered to the needs of disabled people.

Disability sensitive development and disaster management should not be considered charity or assistance to helpless groups within society. It has to be considered as a part of the process to provide a more equitable solution to peoples needs. Everyone has the right to access opportunities which ensures the liberties of humans to live a respectable life. It is impossible to achieve such development goals without ensuring proper contribution from disabled people.

Thus, just as disaster management is being considered as a part of the development process of a country, the those with disabilities should not be relegated to the corners of society - they need to be treated as equal citizens who not only have special needs but also special knowledge and experiences that can be useful for the future of the nation.

Jana Thakshana Puvath

The second issue of Janthakshana Puwath in 2007 focussed on different aspects that has to be dealt with in mainstreaming disability into development. The articles are based on some of the papers presented at the Diriya 2007 conference which was held in March 2007 in Sri Lanka.

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