Don't Overlook People With Disabilities in Haiti

The emergency response and reconstruction efforts in Haiti are opportunities to amend past neglect and discrimination, and assist persons with disabilities to live richer, more dignified lives.
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Even before the earthquake struck, some 800,000 persons in Haiti were living with disabilities, including 200,000 children. An estimated 194,000-250,000 people were injured in the earthquake, many of whom will suffer long-term disabilities. Handicap International estimates that there are at least 2,000 new amputees.

People with disabilities are often overlooked, neglected and forgotten in disaster relief and humanitarian response. Yet they are among the most vulnerable of the affected, particularly if they have lost their traditional caregivers-extended families and neighbors. The organization I work for, the Women's Refugee Commission, has identified problems faced by displaced people living with disabilities in settings around the world-and proposed solutions. We have outlined some key activities to help the people of Haiti who have sustained disabling injuries.

Humanitarian agencies and others working in Haiti must take these people's needs, concerns and abilities into account when designing and implementing programs and activities in order to promote access, inclusion and the full participation of persons with disabilities. This is true whether providing shelter, food, water and sanitation, health services, education or livelihoods.

Since people with disabilities are often kept hidden out of sight or are unable to reach registration centers, special efforts must be made to locate and register them to ensure they receive the services they need.

Dozens of makeshift camps have sprung up around Port-au-Prince. As the crisis continues, it is likely that more long-term camps will be established. The shelters in these camps -- as well as latrines, water points and bathing areas -- must be accessible to all, and people with disabilities, including women, should be involved in decisions about where they are located. As planning for reconstruction gets underway, people with disabilities should be included, to make sure that permanent shelters, schools, health centers and other public buildings are accessible to everyone.

We saw disturbing pictures of near-riots as desperate people have fought to get food and water at distribution points. In such situations, the likelihood of people with disabilities getting anything is remote. They should be prioritized in food and water distributions, and arrangements should be made to deliver rations to those who are immobile.

Access to health care, including reproductive health services, is critical. Doctors and other health care staff, both those working with humanitarian agencies and Haitians, need to be trained on disability issues, and specialized treatment and assistive devices must be provided. There will be a great need for prostheses, and experts to fit them.

Many of the newly disabled are children and young people. Temporary and reconstructed schools must be made accessible to them, and it is important that children with disabilities be mainstreamed into regular schools and classrooms whenever possible. Children with specific learning needs should receive special educational services. This will mean providing appropriate training and support to teachers to equip them with the skills to address the learning needs of children with disabilities.

Besides having special needs, people with disabilities have great potential. Taking advantage of their skills, experiences and expertise, they should be tapped as program staff, project resource persons and program participants. They should also be included in skills training, income generation and employment projects, including cash- and food-for-work projects.

Those living with disabilities were underserved in Haiti prior to the earthquake and were often shunned and stigmatized. The emergency response and reconstruction efforts provide an opportunity to amend past neglect and discrimination and assist persons with disabilities to live richer, more dignified lives. Designing interventions that take into account the specific needs and abilities of people with disabilities can have an enormous effect on improving their well-being and their protection.

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