Disability and disasters
Disasters – such as floods, cyclones, tsunamis and earthquakes – frequently cause loss of life, infrastructure and property. They also cause injury and trauma. However, not everyone is affected by disasters in the same way: it depends on how vulnerable they are.
Vulnerability is affected by many things including gender, age, health, poverty and levels of government support. People with disabilities are often particularly vulnerable when disaster strikes.
There are many reasons for this.
- A low social status may mean people with disabilities are left out of community discussions about what to do if a disaster happens.
- A person with a hearing impairment will not hear warnings broadcast on the radio or through loudspeakers.
- Visual warnings, symbols and signposts are unhelpful for a person with a visual impairment.
- A person with an intellectual disability may find it very stressful trying to cope with a disaster situation in the absence of family members.
- People with disabilities might find it difficult to reach safe places to shelter, and they may be overlooked when emergency aid is being distributed.
Any efforts to reduce the risk and impact of disasters must include everyone, including people with disabilities.
The Gaibandha model is based on the experiences of CBM and its partners in flood-affected communities in the Gaibandha area of Bangladesh. It puts people with disabilities at the centre of disaster risk reduction. They are the agents for change, working with their communities to ensure that everyone’s needs are considered and no one is left behind.
The Gaibandha model suggests five important steps.
STEP 1 – Develop strong
There are many benefits to bringing people with disabilities together in self‑help groups. These include:
- the opportunity to build relationships, talk about concerns and support one another
- increased confidence and the development of leadership skills
- opportunities to access training, eg in how to prepare for disasters and disability rights
- collective voices for advocacy: it is easier to call for change as part of a group than as an individual (see step 2)
- greater understanding of each other’s needs, skills and abilities
- opportunities for small-scale savings and credit schemes leading to improved livelihoods and income (see step 5).
In the Gaibandha area of Bangladesh the self-help groups are involved in all disaster risk reduction activities including mock drills and early warning systems. When disaster strikes, they help identify people in need of rescue and look after those in shelters.
As a result, people with disabilities are increasingly respected as valuable members of society and many are now community leaders. By working together towards a common goal, and taking the needs of a diverse range of people into account, better strategies and plans are developed, and stigma and discrimination are reduced.
STEP 2 – Advocate with the local government
Self-help groups are part of the community in which they live. They need to find their voice, not only for themselves but for the whole community.
After receiving relevant training, the self-help groups in Gaibandha are extremely active in awareness-raising and campaigning for change. They regularly invite government officials and journalists to see their disaster management activities and have built up strong relationships with them. They have successfully campaigned for road and embankment improvements, fair distribution of aid during floods, disability payments, school admission for children with disabilities and wheelchair access to government buildings.
By promoting community causes and not just disability rights, the groups have gained the respect of both community and government. As well as paying increasing attention to the self-help groups and their requests, the government is also beginning to ask for support from self-help group members when training their own staff.
STEP 3 – Leave no one behind
Accessible early warning systems and effective evacuation procedures are essential for keeping all community members safe. A system introduced in the Gaibandha area has already saved lives.
- During mock drill exercises, evacuation plans are discussed. Community members are trained to help with the evacuation of the most vulnerable.
- Disaster Management Committees (which include people with disabilities) monitor flood markers and collect government and media information to forecast floods and other disasters.
- Each family prepares an emergency pack containing dry food, candles, clothes, medicines, water purifying tablets and other essentials.
- If a crisis occurs, committee members inform their community through loudspeaker announcements and coloured flags. People who are particularly vulnerable are contacted directly.
- Everyone is helped to safe shelters which include accessible toilets and water points.
- The Disaster Management Committees work with the Bangladeshi government to try and make sure emergency aid reaches everyone who needs it. They also work together after a disaster has happened, helping communities to rebuild homes and re-establish livelihoods.
STEP 4 – Work with schools
Schools often close for many weeks following a disaster, which has a big impact on the education of the pupils.
In Gaibandha the situation has been greatly improved by involving schools in different awareness-raising activities.
- The schools have developed contingency plans. As part of this pupils are encouraged to travel to and from school by boat during the floods, and safe spaces on raised land have been established, allowing classes to continue.
- The pupils learn about disasters as part of the curriculum and have regular drills so they know how to stay safe. The teachers invite children with disabilities to talk about how floods and other disasters could affect them.
- Self-help group members often visit the schools, increasing awareness of disability issues. As a result the schools are enrolling more children with disabilities and many teachers are asking for extra training in inclusive education.
- The pupils have become important communicators, not only about disaster risk but also about disability. This is helping to break down stigma and misunderstanding in their communities.
STEP 5 – Promote and support livelihoods
Many of the members of the Gaibandha self-help groups now have strong and productive livelihoods. This is because they support each other to try new things, and because people have gained the confidence they need to run their own small businesses. Some of the activities are group based (eg maize production), which means tasks can be shared between the members according to their different abilities.
Having a regular income means people can improve their homes, animal shelters and water supplies so they are less likely to be damaged during a disaster. They are also able to recover more quickly afterwards if they have some money in reserve and can pick their businesses up again quickly.
Disaster risk The combination of how likely it is for a hazardous event (eg a flood) to happen, and the negative way it affects human life and property.
Disaster risk reduction The use of strategies and practices to reduce the occurrence of hazards, decrease the vulnerability of people and property to them, and increase the ability of people to cope with their impact.
Adapted from Saving lives and leaving no one behind: the Gaibandha model for disability-inclusive disaster risk reduction, published by CBM in 2018. See the Resources page for more details.
CBM is an international Christian disability and development organisation. www.cbmuk.org.uk