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Still invisible: Persons with disabilities in post-quake Haiti

Cassandra Phillips, Steven Estey and Mary Ennis


Photo: With permission © World Vision, 2010
It is expected that the number of persons living with physical disabilities will continue to rise.

When the world was attentive to the shocking reports and images out of Haiti in the aftermath of the January earthquake, nothing was heard about what was happening to people already living with disabilities.

When the injured were dug out from the rubble, many were horrified to discover that hundreds of amputations were performed under canvas, without proper equipment. Now that the camera crews have packed up and moved on, how much will be done for people with existing and newly-acquired disabilities? And how will they be included in the rebuilding of Haiti?

The quake killed up to 200,000 people, injured many others and left one-third of the country’s population of nine million in need of emergency aid. Approximately 800,000 Haitians were already living with a disability, and in the first few weeks after the quake, 2,000 to 4,000 amputations were performed.

Sadly, it is expected that the number of persons living with physical disabilities will continue to rise. Lack of mobility aids, such as crutches, can lead to limb shortage and permanent disability. The lack of clean water and poor sanitation can result in secondary wound infection, gangrene and amputation. For the same reason, those with newly-acquired amputations may need another amputation higher up on the body if the stump gets infected.

In Haiti, myths about disability pose barriers to assistance for persons with disabilities. Many Haitians view disability as a curse or punishment. For instance, children experiencing epileptic seizures are presumed possessed. Family hardship is blamed on the child with a disability. As a result, children with disabilities are either hidden from sight or abandoned in sewers.

In this context, what type of protection is available for persons with disabilities? The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) that came into force in 2008 is an international human rights instrument that should guide both relief work and long-term reconstruction in Haiti. The CRPD outlines state obligations to persons with disabilities during humanitarian crisis, including right to life, right to access, right to protection of integrity and right to community inclusion.

Immediately following any major disaster, many persons with disabilities flee their homes, leaving behind wheelchairs, braces and crutches. They rely on others to carry them to safety and to fetch them food and water in the makeshift camps. These settings are too often a breeding ground for the violation of their human rights.

Later, in post-disaster situations when people are moved out of camps into outlying areas, transition can be difficult for persons with disabilities; they may have longer distances to travel to find food, pump water and obtain medical care or rehabilitation services. Even when they are able to access basic necessities, some lack the stamina to carry them home.

People with existing and newly-acquired disabilities may be physically unable to continue with their previous employment. New homes or schools may be inaccessible, increasing once again their dependence on others.

In Haiti today, Valerie Scherrer of the German NGO Christian Blind Missions (CBM) states that “persons living with disabilities before the earthquake remain invisible. They are not given priority since everyone is trying to survive.”



Photo: With permission © World Vision, 2010
Amidst the destruction of the earthquake, roughly 800,000 Haitians were already living with disability. In the first few weeks after the quake, 2,000 to 4,000 amputations were performed.

Nonetheless, the intent of international humanitarian organizations is to reach all those in need. Patrick Sooma at World Vision International (WVI) reports from Haiti that, “disability is considered in all aspects of the humanitarian response effort. A Protection Team supervises food distribution to ensure equal access, and outlying communities are given advance notice of deliveries so that persons with disabilities can get someone to pick up their supplies.”

Clearly this is a step in the right direction, but is it enough? WVI’s efforts are an excellent start, yet Scherrer claims that food baskets are often too heavy for persons with disabilities to lift. Others state that orphaned children with post-traumatic stress disorder wander their ramshackle villages, stealing food from neighbours.

Co-ordinating the relief effort in a country with an already weak infrastructure is no easy task. At this time, there are many stakeholders, both international and local, who want to be involved. Scherrer notes that many of these groups have no disability-related experience.

Rebuilding Haiti will be a complex process. Disabled Peoples’ International (DPI) views persons with disabilities as the experts on disability issues. As such, they should be consulted on reconstruction, education, employment training and accommodation needs. Hopefully, funding for rehabilitation programs will respond to adults and children with a variety of disabilities, not just children with amputations. Yet to be addressed are educational programs to shatter cultural myths and stereotypes about persons with disabilities. Finally, greater respect for international humanitarian law as a means of enhancing the protection of those who have had to flee their homes will go a long way to ensure that the rights of persons with disabilities are 
upheld.blue square

Steven Estey is Human Rights Officer, Disabled Peoples’ International (DPI). Mary Ennis is Executive Director, DPI. Cassandra Phillips, PhD (University of Saskatchewan) is the Editor of Disability International, a publication of DPI, and the Editor of DPI’s Electronic Newsletter. DPI is the largest cross-disability grassroots organization in the world with a network of 134 national assemblies, mostly in developing nations. For more information, visit http://www.dpi.org.

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