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6 facts that reveal how humanitarian aid is failing people with disabilities

From the refugee crisis to the aftermath of natural disasters, humanitarian aid is essential in tackling some of the world's most devastating living conditions. But not all people have equal access to aid. 

People with disabilities around the world often have unmet needs that stem from social stigma and inequality, high rates of poverty, and poor health care. And that systemic inequality is only compounded in crisis situations.

Aug. 19 is World Humanitarian Day, which acknowledges the difficult and undeniable important work of aid workers. But while there are many triumphs to celebrate in terms of humanitarian relief, it's also crucial to see how far we still need to go — especially for populations particularly vulnerable to crisis.

People with disabilities are hit particularly hard by disaster, often lacking access to relief services — especially in developing nations. Yet, people with disabilities are arguably those who most need aid in crisis situations.

Human conflict and natural disasters, after all, commonly increase the number of people in a community who live with a disability, either due to new injuries or lack of adequate aid exacerbating existing disabilities.

Ricardo Pla Cordero, technical adviser for inclusion in humanitarian action for nonprofit advocacy organization Handicap International, says the first step to curbing this problem is to collect data on the experiences of people with disabilities in conflict. But that's trickier than it may seem, Pla Cordero says, because statistical definitions of disability vary around the world causing difficulty in identifying and counting people with disabilities. 

To put it simply, Pla Cordero says, “To make people count, we have to count people right."

Though data collection on disability and humanitarian relief is rare, recent efforts have started to illuminate the startling problem of aid inequality. And while Pla Cardero says more data is needed to better understand the problem, he adds we cannot wait for that data to start addressing current problems in relief work.

To bring more attention to the needs of people with disabilities in crisis situations, advocates say more awareness of disability identities and assessments of needs on the ground are vital. 

Advocacy organizations like Handicap International also insist that listening to the voices of people with disabilities is the best way to improve understanding of what needs to be done to change the effectiveness of aid work. Pla Cordero specifically calls on humanitarian aid organizations to seek input from existing organizations for people with disabilities while coordinating relief efforts, while also pushing for more representation of people with disabilities in humanitarian organizations. 

"Our infrastructure needs to be diversified and accessible, and workers without disabilities need to be sensitized — not only to better serve people with disabilities in crisis, but to include more humanitarian actors with disabilities in aid work," Pla Cordero says.

But to move forward, we first need to understand as much as we can about how deep this inequality runs. Here are six facts about the struggles people with disabilities experience in crisis situations to help start the conversation. 

An estimated 1 billion people live with disabilities globally, 80 percent of whom live in developing regions often considered more susceptible to developmental instability. As of May 2016, Handicap International estimated that 20 million of these people currently live in humanitarian crises. 

Yet, advocates say, people with disabilities are rarely included in international development agendas, even though they experience heightened vulnerability in times of crisis. 

The problem can be seen by looking at the refugee crisis in particular, Pla Cordero says. According to Handicap International, 30 percent of refugees have disability-related needs — but we don't often hear of aid efforts to address disability among refugee populations.

According to a recent survey, an estimated 15 million people with disabilities in humanitarian crises report not having adequate access to basic necessities such as water, shelter, food or health care. An estimated 10 million people with disabilities reported that they didn't have access to rehabilitation care and assistive devices in the aftermath of crises. 

Of those 15 million people who lack access to basic needs, 20 percent reported they lost essential support related to their disabilities as a result of crisis, while 11 percent reported losing their caregiver to crisis. About 13 percent reported the loss of an assistive device.

"It may seem like a simplification of a large problem, but it is true," Pla Cordero says. "When people lose their hearing aids or their wheelchairs, they are losing something that allowed them to be more autonomous and supported them."

Notably, half of people with disabilities in crisis situations lost their source of income in the aftermath, which is especially devastating as the disability community already experiences high rates of unemployment and poverty globally. 

A major contributor to the lack of resources that people with disabilities experience stems from a lack of funding. A very small portion of aid budgets go toward the needs of people with disabilities — and it's a fact aid workers criticize.

Approximately 47 percent of aid workers name a lack of funding as the cause for inadequate resources for people with disabilities in crisis settings.

"People with disabilities face more barriers and more difficulties to reach aid by themselves and to be safe during a humanitarian disaster," Pla Cordero says, adding that programs need to be financially supported to change this. 

According to recent Handicap International data, a staggering 92 percent of aid workers say people with disabilities are not properly taken into account in humanitarian response.

"Almost the totality of humanitarian actors recognize adequate humanitarian action is not taking place," Pla Cordero says. 

But he says a shift is taking place to make sure those needs are met. The recent Charter on Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities in Humanitarian Action, which was developed in advance of the World Humanitarian Summit in May 2016, is proof of tangible steps the global community is taking to address disability inequality in crisis situations. Several countries, U.N. agencies, and individual humanitarian and nonprofit organizations endorsed the charter, vowing to address barriers facing people with disabilities in the aftermath of disaster through inclusive programming and aid work.

"At the global level, there is a response," Pla Cordero says. "But at the national level and local level when there is a disaster, still there are a lot of things to do."

Of the 20 million people living with disabilities in crisis situations, more than half say they have experienced a direct physical impact as a result — sometimes resulting in additional disabilities. 

The largest percentage of those individuals — 33 percent — report a physical or sensory disability as a result of conflict. About 14 percent report a loss or decrease in vision, while 11 percent report a loss or decrease in hearing. About 9 percent of people with existing disabilities had to have a limb amputated after living through crisis situations.

Advocates say abuse, coupled with the need to cope with already devastating crisis, can lead to severe impacts on mental health. Almost 40 percent of people with disabilities say they experienced psychological stress or disorientation in the aftermath of crisis-related trauma. 

Among women with disabilities, one in three report having experienced a type of abuse — whether psychological, physical or sexual.  Of women who have been internally displaced by crisis, about 60 percent report being abused. 

People with communication-related disabilities, those with intellectual disabilities, and persons with low or no vision were particularly likely to experience abuse during crisis.

While there are often mechanisms in place to evaluate the needs of other vulnerable populations — like women in conflict — Pla Cordero says the same attention is not yet given to people with disabilities. 

"If you are a humanitarian actor, you know that women are more exposed to gender-based violence, so you need to put in place mechanisms to respond to that reality," he says. "In that same area, we have 15 percent of people [globally] who have a disability.

"What does that mean for a humanitarian actor? I don't think a lot of people can answer that question."

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