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Terror Wave: Tsunami and Disability

Editor's Note: The following article is reprinted from Disability World, Issue no. 26, December 2004-February 2005:

The 26th of December, 2004, was the beginning of a new wave of shock and terror that faced the world. Weeks after the tsunami, the emerging picture is unprecedented. The magnitude and scale of the devastation is staggering. The death toll to date is unparalleled and still many more people are at risk, unaccounted for, displaced, shattered and shocked.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 150,000 people are now at extreme risk of disease and that more than a half million people are seriously injured. Many of those injured will become permanently disabled in one of the largest mass casualty events in recent times. Early reports from disaster assistance experts indicate massive numbers of lower-extremity injuries and amputations.

Because people with disabilities are among the most neglected populations worldwide, what were likely scarce resources in the first place may now be overwhelmed with the dramatically increased need. In order to identify and meet the coming demand for health, rehabilitation, accessible housing, and the many other needs of people with disabilities in communities throughout South Asia, a thorough assessment of the situation is essential.

Particular vulnerability of people with disabilities

It is also critical that we examine what impact the emergency relief and post-tsunami reconstruction will have on the vulnerability of those at risk with a particular focus on people with disabilities.

Research shows us that in most disasters there are groups in society who experience discrimination in relation to relief aid distribution, are vulnerable to abuse, predators and heinous violations of their human rights. Their vulnerability can be based on factors such as disability, gender, geographical location, ethnicity, age or caste.

There are a number of important areas to pay attention to in responding to the disaster:

The coping mechanisms for people with disabilities in the crisis situation--at an individual level

The actions of the governments, NGO's, donor agencies and other relief agencies. [are they accessing people with disabilities?]

The reconstruction process that will be spearheaded by governments with the assistance from the international community [is it accessible?]

The increase in numbers of people with disabilities as a result of the Tsunami

Suggested interventions from a disability perspective

The Tsunami in the region was a natural phenomenon. However, the impact and the result of those who intervene is not. The interventions may be determined by the circumstances such as poverty, spatial location, social inequalities, gender, age and disability. There is always a risk that in relief initiatives, further marginalization of the most vulnerable occurs.

It is therefore important to recognize and more importantly act on the vulnerability of people with disabilities in this situation of shock and disaster. Using a disability perspective, the following need to be considered:

The socio-economic vulnerability of people with disabilities.

The organizational capacity of Disabled People's Organizations (DPOs) as support networks and in many cases as primary sources of information. They will need to be strengthened.

The need for specific contingency plans for people with disabilities to be developed for emergency relief.

The lack of secure employment.

Inadequate and lack of access to health care services.

Inadequate nutrition and threats of food insecurity.

The loss of housing.

Loss of primary care givers.

The general lack of access to public and/or private transport.

New opportunity to address inequality and inclusiveness

However, notwithstanding the devastation, this disaster can provide a real opportunity for addressing inequality and ensuring more inclusiveness in the process of reconstruction by thoughtful planning that is premised on transforming society and removing barriers. It will however require that the reconstruction be people-centred and participatory if we are serious about achieving equity and social justice. We cannot and should not be part of reconstructing inequality and poverty.

Fostering contingency planning and emergency preparedness at the local level is just as important, if not more so, than the planning undertaken by humanitarians. Contingency planning at the community level increases local resilience before, during and after a disaster.

We must remember that the people most directly affected by a development issue have the best ideas, analysis and opinions about how to address that issue. Our efforts should be to facilitate this.

(Editor's note: The author, an occasional writer for DisabilityWorld since its inception, is a Commissioner of the South Africa Human Rights Commission, detailed this year to the World Bank's Asia office.)

News Sources on Tsunami & People with Disabilities

The World Bank's Global Partnership on Disability & Development is operating a listserv on the topic and many NGOs have written in detailing their activities. Send email to:

UNESCAP's Asia Pacific Center on Disability, headquartered in Bangkok, has started a web page of projects and news about disabled people affected by tsunami:

Tracking mainstream news articles concerned with impact of tsunami on disabled persons in the region:

ZZ - Disregard this link; it is used to trick spammers.