PEOPLE with disabilities are being excluded from responses to natural disasters, the chief executive of the Christian disability charity CBM, Kirsty Smith, has warned.
The charity is employing community workers to walk the hills of Haiti, in search of people with disabilities who may have received no help in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew last year (News, 7 October 2016).
Speaking last week on her return from the country, Ms Smith said that the impact of the disaster, in which 600 people died, was still “very evident” in rural areas, where a “cemetery of trees” could be found. Even concrete pillars had been ripped from their foundations. The government was “doing what it can”, but was still poorly resourced after the 2010 earthquake in which 300,000 people died, including many government officials (News, 14 January 2010).
CBM, which has worked in Haiti for more than 30 years, has based its response in the government’s department for people with disabilities, which was “extremely open to working closely” with it.
A shortage of local partners has meant that the charity has had to supplement its usual approach with direct action, providing tools and seeds for farmers, and cash transfers for the most vulnerable families. The charity estimates that it has reached 3370 people.
Community workers, social workers, and psychologists have been employed. Ms Smith described how they were “literally walking the hills” to reach the most remote, vulnerable communities, and find families with disabled members.
Among those found was Maricia Registre, who lost the roof of her corrugated-iron home during the hurricane, and who was struggling to secure physiotherapy for her nine-year-old son, Pierrot, who is physically and mentally disabled. He is now receiving weekly sessions, and a cash transfer has been provided to aid house repairs.
“What we find in emergency situations is that people with disabilities are very often excluded,” Ms Smith said. “They might not hear or see warnings, could struggle to access temporary shelters, and might lose vital aids, including canes, wheelchairs, and crutches”. She had heard accounts of a “terrible scrum” to access food: “People with disabilities just couldn’t get close.”
The rate of disability is higher in low-income countries, partly because of poor maternity care. Services were “extremely limited” in Haiti, given that the country was already poor before the earthquake. But it was an “inspirational” nation because of its disabled-people organisations, which were “doing some quite remarkable things”.
“They are all volunteers,” she said. “I met incredible people who dedicate their lives to setting up networks and communities, because they so strongly felt the importance of their voices’ being heard. They were really, really keen on holding the government to account.”
The UN estimates that Haiti lost $2.7 billion, or 32 per cent of GDP, as a result of Hurricane Matthew.
CBM is developing an app — the Humanitarian Hands-On Tool — to enable those responding to disasters to obtain guidance on including people with disabilities, from the width of doorways to the size of signage.