When the storm hit, it was terrible but not unexpected. Cyclone Idai struck Mozambique on March 15, 2019, ripping through homes and tearing up farmland. Thousands died or were injured. Millions were made homeless.
It was devastating for those who survived, but for survivors with disabilities, it was a catastrophe.
Like COVID-19, the storm arrived with warning. But somehow, those warnings didn’t reach the people who needed that information most. In one case, a woman with a hearing impairment didn’t know the storm had come until she woke up and found her roof had disappeared, according to the report “Aid out of Reach,” a report produced by NGO Light for the World in partnership with UNICEF, and with financial support from the Norweigan government.
People with disabilities repeatedly said that they were not told where, when, or how to get food and other emergency aid supplies.—
There are many other similar accounts — of poor or no communication, inaccessible temporary accommodation, unfairly distributed food — the list goes on. Their experiences, which form the foundation of our recommendations, present a clear route towards truly inclusive relief efforts.
Still living in the shadow of Cyclone Idai, Mozambique must now grapple with COVID-19. It’s vital that the mistakes made following the cyclone are not repeated. So, here are three ways that humanitarian organizations can make sure people with disabilities receive the support they need during this and future crises.
1. Involve disabled people in emergency response efforts
People with disabilities are at risk of being left behind in the response. Experts explain what can be done to help.
Cyclone Idai showed what happens when organizations of people with disabilities, or DPOs, are left out of the loop. Many people with disabilities said that when it came to getting the supplies they needed, the system failed them.
Ensuring the system is strong means asking DPOs to provide technical support during crises, as well as advice when policies are being revised or developed. Humanitarian organizations should also integrate DPOs into the aid distribution and monitoring process — particularly as they know who needs the most help. Ideally, people with disabilities should be represented at all meetings and all administrative levels. Humanitarian bodies should also consider paying DPOs as they would any other specialist providing a professional service.
2. Train front-line staff to be sensitive to the needs of people with disabilities
It is a given that staff in places where aid is distributed should treat everyone with dignity and understanding. But this was not always the case following Cyclone Idai.
Organizations can make some vital adjustments to avoid such indignities. With proper training, staff can be made aware of how to identify women, men, girls, and boys with disabilities and refer them to services tailored to their needs. They can prioritize food and aid distribution so that the most vulnerable receive it first. Equally, staff working in schools and other child-friendly spaces would benefit from training in appropriate teaching methods, class set-ups, and other strategies to make learning more accessible for children with disabilities.
3. Make sure your communications reach people with disabilities
While researching our report, people with disabilities repeatedly said that they were not told where, when, or how to get food and other emergency aid supplies.
Support shouldn’t be left to chance. Aid providers can cut through the confusion by working through existing community structures, like neighborhood heads, to provide information at least a few days in advance to women, men, girls, and boys with disabilities. This should include what kind of aid will be offered, when and where it will be distributed, and who is eligible to receive it. Communication methods should include audio, printed material with easily understandable text such as large type or braille, and sign language. Early warning systems can also be adopted where sign language professionals and interpreters go from home to home giving advance notice of an event.
The COVID-19 crisis has so far affected just over 450 people in Mozambique at the time of writing. In a country with a population of about 30 million, this is still a fairly low number, but we’ve seen before how quickly it can get out of hand.
In truth, COVID-19 is a test case for humanitarian organizations who must quickly learn from what happened during Cyclone Idai and take swift action to prevent even more suffering.
I have faith this will happen — just look at the positive steps that have already been made, such as global political commitments toward mainstreaming disability in humanitarian action and the creation of a Disability Working Group, which now represents people with disabilities in the humanitarian cluster system in Mozambique — including during the COVID-19 response.
Having listened to what people with disabilities have to say, if aid organizations can go further by taking these three concrete steps, I know it will save lives.