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Q&A: Karlee Johnson on engaging people with disabilities in disaster risk reduction

SEI will work with the University of Sydney and local partners across Southeast Asia to fill large knowledge gaps and help empower this population to influence policy and build resilience in the region.

Marion Davis / Published on 3 October 2015

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Nearly 500 project teams responded to the Global Resilience Challenge, which seeks to find transformative solutions to problems that threaten the lives and livelihoods of vulnerable populations around the world. Last week, eight teams won grants for their projects, including one led by the University of Sydney that includes Karlee Johnson, of SEI’s Asia Centre.

The two-year project aims to strengthen the voices of people with disabilities in the region who are disproportionately affected by climate-related disasters, and often overlooked in traditional disaster risk reduction efforts. The team will generate new knowledge about DRR and disability in Southeast Asia, and work to empower people with disabilities to influence governmental resilience strategies and become champions of resilience in their communities. Johnson answered questions about the project.

Q: How widespread is disability in Southeast Asia?
Across the Asia-Pacific region there are an estimated 650 million people with disabilities, but it’s actually very difficult to know for sure, due to the huge lack of reliable data. On average, about 15% of the population in developed countries lives with some sort of disability, but estimates in Southeast Asia are often much lower. For example, in Thailand, the official estimate is just 2–3%.

We don’t think this reflects lower disability rates, but substantial under-counting. One explanation is that many disabled people are poor, and in developing countries like Thailand, the poor are not well counted in census data. Social stigmatization of the disabled is also widespread in the region, and “hiding” disabled family members at home is fairly common practice. People with disabilities may also prefer not to register to protect themselves from discrimination.

Q: What kinds of disabilities are we talking about?
KJ: Many people were born with disabilities, whether it’s being blind, deaf or intellectually or mobility impaired. Others, often from poor families, acquire disabilities as children by not receiving proper health care for easily treatable issues. For example, eye infections like trachoma can lead to blindness when left untreated. There is a clear connection between the prevention of disabilities and access to quality health services, something sorely lacking for poor communities in the region. And disasters are a significant cause of disability: about 6% of disaster-affected people acquire physical, cognitive or psychological disabilities from the event – an estimated 5 million people in the Asia Pacific region in the past decade.

Q:Why are people with disabilities more vulnerable during disasters?
People with disabilities are four times likelier to be killed by a disaster than people without disabilities, for several reasons. People with mobility limitations may not be able to move quickly to higher ground during a flood or storm surge. People with intellectual disabilities may not fully grasp what is occurring during an earthquake or tsunami. In chaotic situations, when people literally run for their lives, the disabled may be left behind. And although there have been considerable investments in early warning systems in the region since the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, they have largely ignored the needs of persons with disabilities. For example, sound-based warning systems completely exclude the deaf. The sheer lack of information about people with disabilities also makes it difficult for emergency responders to find them quickly to evacuate or provide medical treatment.

Q: Do these disparities persist in the aftermath of disasters?
KJ: Yes. Safe shelter is a human right, yet people with disabilities face serious limitations in accessing shelters, which may be situated in hard-to-reach locations or be inaccessible by wheelchairs. Shelters can also be an overwhelming and uncomfortable place for people with disabilities who have been largely kept inside their homes. And people with disabilities often face discrimination and may even be denied access, when “disability” is classified as a specialized medical issue that humanitarian responders cannot handle. Sexual abuse of women with disabilities, including in shelters, is a recurring issue as well. There has been work done in the Philippines on the high rate of sexual violence towards deaf women who are seen as passive, quiet and easy targets.

Q: There is a new push for “disability-inclusive” DRR. What does that mean?
KJ:The 2006 UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities and the new Sendai Framework both call for DRR not only to fully address the needs of people with disabilities in DRR plans, policies and measures, but to empower them to advocate for themselves. In practice, however, DRR strategies that meaningfully include people with disabilities are still in their infancy, and there is a big gap between agencies and organizations focused on disability and those focused on DRR.

One Asian country where we are seeing a change is Japan. Since the 2011 Great East Japan earthquake, many disabled persons organizations pushing for inclusive DRR are gaining visibility. Several are headed by disabled people who actively voice their concerns themselves, rather than by non-disabled “representatives”, as is common in Southeast Asia. This counteracts one of the key misconceptions of people with disabilities in the region: that they are passive and voiceless. People with disabilities know the challenges they face during disasters better than anyone else. We need to create a space for them to share this crucial knowledge.

Q: What is the focus of your project?
KJ: The overarching goal is to include and strengthen the voices of people with disabilities in Thailand, Cambodia and the Philippines, and provide them with the support to effectively protect themselves from hazards. The project’s objectives are three-fold: to increase the confidence of persons with disabilities and challenge misleading stereotypes; to engage people with disabilities as co-producers of risk solutions; and to promote inclusive DRR governance. Some of our project team members have disabilities themselves, which really emphasizes the inclusive nature of this project and is what disability-inclusive DRR is all about.

Q: What is SEI’s role in the project?
KJ: SEI Asia’s regional knowledge of major DRR issues and experience in critical research will bring key insights on existing DRR policy issues and implementation challenges. My role will be to work directly with our in-country partners in the region, who have strong backgrounds in disability, in order to bring DRR insights that will help inform their research and capacity-building activities.

This project is also closely related to SEI’s Initiative on Transforming Development and Disaster Risk. Our work with people with disabilities will provide crucial insights for the Initiative on a population that has long been overlooked by the wider DRR community.

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