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Haiti, disabled people and disasters

by Tom Shakespeare

31st January 2010

When catastrophes strike, it's often hard to comprehend the impact of numbers. Human stories and human connections are what brings the reality home to you. When I heard about Haiti's earthquake, it was horrifying to discover tens of thousands of people had died, with many more injured or homeless. But amidst my overall feeling of shock and distress, I was particularly concerned about one person, Gerald Oriol, a disability and community activist who contributed to the World Report on Disability and Rehabilitation, on which I work at WHO - the World Health Organization.
Gerald oriol
Gerald is a young disabled man working for a voluntary organisation called Fondation J'Aime Haiti. I was put in touch with him via a humanitarian colleague who had met him in Port-au-Prince. My friend told me that, because the roads are so bad in Haiti, the UN sometimes would fly Gerald around the country in their helicopters, so he could support disabled people in outlying areas.

After some emails back and forth, Gerald wrote his testimony for the World Report. Despite having never met him, I felt a connection, and so it was for him that I was most anxious, as soon as the news came through of the quake.

I was encouraged to see that his website was still online, until I realised it is probably hosted outside the country. I emailed, and hoped for the best.

Disabled people are among the most vulnerable when disaster strikes. They may be left behind in the evacuation of buildings. Environmental barriers - such as destroyed roads and pavements - are a greater obstacle to those with mobility issues. People who require regular medication or treatment are likely to lose out. For those disabled people living in emergency shelters, latrine arrangements may be inaccessible. And where food aid is distributed in refugee camps, disabled people are often at the back of the queue and so may go hungry.
doctor examining patient in Haiti
Evidence shows, for example, that many of those who died in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina were older or disabled people. The same goes for the Boxing Day tsunami, and other natural disasters.

At WHO, we are trying to mainstream disability. In other words, rather than leaving the issue to a small specialist team, the hope is that all the technical departments address disability issues in their work. One of the clusters at WHO is Health Action in Crisis, and they were among our earliest collaborators. Together, we are working with an NGO to prepare a checklist for relief coordinators, to alert them to the particular vulnerabilities of disabled people.

The next step is to promote training, so that humanitarian staff can be prepared and will understand what to do. There may also be a need to stockpile supplies so that disabled people's specific needs are met and that emergency aid can include catheters, insulin or other regular medications, as well as the usual food and drugs.

Emergencies are not just about immediate response, but about reconstruction and recovery. In the aftermath of a disaster, there is a huge need for rehabilitation services, so that people who experienced lasting injuries can return to active life.
Woman in wheelchair, Haiti
Many people in Haiti will have experienced paralysis, head injury, amputations and other traumatic injury due to the earthquakes, not to mention emotional distress arising from shock and bereavement. The only chink of light in the darkness is that perhaps, if sufficient aid is forthcoming, reconstruction efforts for homes, public buildings and other infrastructure will result in better and more barrier-free facilities than before.

Every day since the quake, I have been hoping to hear a response from Gerald. When I woke up this Sunday, I checked my email again. This time, I was so relieved to get an email direct from him in Port-au-Prince. He wrote to me and other supporters:
Gerald Oriol
"There is no word to describe the scope of the catastrophe in Haiti. The people are under extreme distress and face considerable challenges and needs (drinking water, food, shelter, medical attentions, etc.). However, in this time of crisis, the people of Haiti have shown great solidarity and patience. For the past two days, I and the rest of the team have been working with a few disadvantaged communities in Port-au-Prince. Together with the communities, we have been burying corpses to avoid the spread of possible diseases. We have also been providing transport to medical centers ... Terrible, just terrible but we must muster all our strengths. On a personal note, my immediate family is safe. I have not yet reached the extended family ... however, many friends have perished. Thanks and take care! Let us be strong for Haiti."
Please, contribute what you can to the DEC emergency appeal for Haiti.
• Thanks go to Fondation Jaime Haiti and also to Lisa Gordon - Help Age International - on behalf of Disasters Emergency Committee, for permission to publish these photos.

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