People with Disabilities


The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities uses the following definition, “Persons with disabilities include those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments which in interaction with various barriers may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others (emphasis added).”

According to the World Bank, “One billion people, or 15% of the world’s population, experience some form of disability, and disability prevalence is higher for developing countries. One-fifth of the estimated global total, or between 110 million and 190 million people, experience significant disabilities. Persons with disabilities are more likely to experience adverse socioeconomic outcomes than persons without disabilities, such as less education, poorer health outcomes, lower levels of employment, and higher poverty rates.”

This creates an interactive cycle as indicated in the diagram below.

Barriers can exist in a range of areas including health care, employment, education, transportation, recreation, social outlets, housing or access to information, political or public life. These barriers often create challenges for people with disabilities to live full and complete, independent lives. The societal barriers associated with hearing and visual impairments, chronic health conditions and mobility challenges place people with disabilities at a greater risk for being impacted by a disaster. When a disaster hits, the lack of inclusion in disaster preparedness – combined with adverse socioeconomic outcomes – creates increased risk and problems for people with disabilities. Disasters also increase the disparities between people with disabilities and others in their community, making it more likely they will be disproportionately negatively impacted during the disaster and afterward.

A World Bank blog outlines five actions that can be taken to support recovery for people with disabilities. It draws from a report titled “Disability Inclusion in Disaster Risk Management” from the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and the Recovery (GFDRR) and the World Bank:

1. Ensure that persons with disabilities have a seat at the table.
2. Remove barriers to full participation of persons with disabilities.
3. Increase awareness among governments on the needs of persons with disabilities.
4. Collect data that is inclusive of persons with disabilities.
5. “Build back better” by improving accessibility for persons with disabilities.

Key Facts

  • People with disabilities are at increased risk of morbidity and mortality during a disaster. After the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, researchers found that the fatality rate for people with disabilities was two to four times higher than the general population.
  • Following a disaster, there is an increase in the number of people with physical, sensory and psychosocial impairments. It is estimated that for every death in a disaster, an additional three people are injured or disabled. In the 2010 earthquake in Haiti approximately 200,000 people experienced injury or disabilities out of the 3 million who were affected.
  • Poverty hinders people’s ability to prepare, evacuate and recover. Given the high rate of people with disabilities living in poverty, they may be limited in their ability to prepare for a disaster – from home mitigation efforts to building an emergency kit. Evacuation efforts must include accessible transportation for those with mobility disabilities.
  • Disasters limit access to services. Following a disaster, access to prescription medications, daily-living assistance, home-delivered meals, basic hygiene, mental health services and healthcare for chronic conditions may be interrupted.
  • Disasters tend to have greater impact on people with disabilities. For this vulnerable population, disasters are more likely to result in medical emergencies and/or necessitate transitional housing, home modification and mental health services and counseling.

How to Help

  • Review all emergency preparedness or disaster information for accessibility. Text descriptions of photos and ability to resize text are important for people with visual disabilities. Deaf and Hard of Hearing folks appreciate both closed-captioning and sign language interpretation of all emergency announcements and press conferences. Care must be taken to ensure news stations include the interpreters in the visuals, especially in replays on the news and do not place captions over the interpreters’ hands or face.
  • Support the replacement of durable medical equipment (DME), communication and assistive devices, prescription medication and other disability-related needs. Following a disaster, if a person has lost their DME they may be hindered in their recovery and forced into a position of dependency. The loss of a cane, support animal or mobility device may force someone to be home-bound or isolated. The loss of a feeding pump or oxygen may be life-threatening.
  • Ensure shelters are safe spaces for people with disabilities. Often in disasters, people are separated from their health care or home support provider who is unlikely to evacuate with them. Shelters, especially critical care shelters, must provide options for support workers to evacuate with their clients.
  • Provide core funding and operational support to help nonprofits and agencies who serve people with disabilities. Assist them to provide both preparedness and recovery services to:

– Support coordination and communication efforts regarding preparation and evacuation.

– Support evacuation transportation methods.

– Provide workshops and educational seminars that assist the elderly and disabled community in accessing benefits and other assistance in the aftermath of a disaster.

– Engage in advocacy to ensure rebuilding efforts are in accordance with the Americans with Disabilities (ADA) laws and building codes.

– Establish funds that address immediate needs and long-term assistance for people with disabilities.

What Funders Are Doing

  • In 2015, the Abilis Foundation provided a $2,775 grant to Forum for Human Rights on Disability – Nuwakot to support the approximately 700 disabled people who lost their homes in that region of Nepal following an earthquake on April 25, 2015. Additionally, the project aimed to lobby the Nepalese government to take disabled people into account in its housing program.
  • The Unitarian Universalist Service Committee provided a $25,000 grant to Vanuatu Society for Disabled People to guarantee that people with a disability were included in the response effort and had the support necessary to ensure they are better protected during future disasters. In the space of a few weeks, Vanuatu was hit by an earthquake, a volcanic eruption and Category 5 Cyclone Pam.

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