In honour of the United Nations’ International Day of Persons with Disabilities, Sauvé Fellow Rolando Jr. Villamero reports on the issue of Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) with disabilities, within the context of natural disasters occurring in his home country of the Philippines.

Rolando examines the Philippine disaster risk management strategies for IDP with disabilities and provides recommendations on how the Philippines can strengthen its risk management procedures.

Op-Ed by Rolando Jr. Villamero

In 2014, the Philippine Daily Inquirer (PDI) reported that an adult with a psychosocial disability drowned because he was locked inside the house during a flood and that a blind woman was injured in a stampede when an earthquake hit in one of the cities in Central Philippines.

We need to take seriously the additional struggles that people with disabilities face during and after natural disasters. Obviously, if one has an intellectual disability, he or she may not be able to and seek appropriate help; if one has physical disability, he or she may not be able to flee a tsunami, a flood or an earthquake; and if one is blind, he or she may not be able to locate food and water at evacuation centres. Individuals with disabilities are disproportionately affected by natural disasters and are four times more likely to die when and after disaster occurs, according to the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP).

The National Council Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NCDRRC) reports that every year, 19 typhoons affect the Philippines, and nine make landfall. This country is among the most vulnerable to the negative effects of climate change. Furthermore, it is located within the Pacific Ring of Fire, which makes it more vulnerable to earthquakes.

The Philippine government is working towards ensuring that persons with disabilities receive appropriate protection and safety when natural disasters occur. The country has ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), which stresses the obligation of the country to provide protection and safety to persons with disabilities in situations of risk, including natural disasters. Policies like the Climate Change Act and the Republic Act 1012,1 emphasize vulnerable and marginalized groups’ need for protection in times of disaster. Despite these laudable policies in the Philippines, persons with disabilities continue to suffer far more than other citizens during natural disasters. Why are we failing?

Studies highlight several barriers to protecting persons with disabilities during and after natural disasters: unreliable data on persons with disabilities, lack of knowledge of disability issues among governments and relief organizations, exclusion of persons with disabilities from disaster management and relief work, physical inaccessibility of shelters and evacuation centres, and stigma and discrimination. Mark Priestley, an expert on disability, stresses that “The stigma associated with disability assigns inferior or no value to people with disabilities and leads to the denial of basic rights and services to this population group, especially in the disaster context where there is a scarcity of resources and the prevalent structural inadequacies and discrimination are ruthlessly exposed.” Making disaster risk management disability-inclusive is going to be difficult. How can we overcome these multiple barriers in the Philippine context?

First, the government should recognize that disability is both a development and a crosscutting issue. It touches on other subjects such as democracy, human rights, gender equality, and environmental sustainability. Persons with disabilities should be seen as actors, not as victims. We need to invite them to be part of the solution, not treat them like part of the problem.

Second, there is a need for the government to institutionalize the participation of persons with disabilities and their families within the larger disaster risk management agenda through robust policies. In this way, people with disabilities can mobilize themselves to ensure that their needs are heard.

In addition, disaggregated data on disability such as the number of persons with disabilities and their specific needs must be made accessible, holistic, specific, and reliable by the government. Only good data can accurately inform the strategies on how to respond to the needs of persons with disabilities in a natural disaster context.

Finally, we need to educate our whole community about disability issues, through community forums and events. This should be spearheaded by the relevant agencies in the government such as the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DILG) and the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG). A populace that is informed about disability rights and issues is essential to pursuing inclusive disaster risk management.

Some government officials claim that persons with disabilities represent a small group or sector, and that their efforts and resources should be directed to serving the majority of the population- those without disabilities. We need to move past this outdated way of thinking. A full 15 percent of the world’s population is estimated to be living with disabilities, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). And 80 per cent of the 1.1 billion with disabilities globally come from developing countries like the Philippines.

The Philippine government has the moral responsibility to take this issue seriously. As Cardinal Roger Mahony stressed, “Any society, any national is judged on the basis of how it treats its weakest members – the last, the least, the littlest.” Our country has already ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). Now is the time to turn promises into action.


Photo Caption: OLONGAPO CITY, Philippines (Sept. 29, 2014) – Personnel Specialist 3rd Class Koko Zaw learns basic sign language during a community service event at the Ninos Pag-Asa Center, a local orphanage that cares for children with special needs and disabilities. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Jon Erickson/released.)

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