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A more inclusive post-Covid-19 world for persons with disabilities – how humanitarians can play their part

Written by Sarah Collinson

One billion people live with a disability. The International Day of Persons with Disabilities provides a key opportunity to highlight the issues they face and take stock of how the humanitarian sector can play its part in building a more inclusive post-Covid-19 world. This is an urgent challenge.

People with disabilities already face multiple risks to their health, safety, food security and livelihoods, and are disproportionally affected in humanitarian emergencies. These difficulties are compounded by the pandemic. Covid-19 is intensifying existing inequalities and vulnerabilities while simultaneously exposing and exacerbating weaknesses in already deficient and fragile health and social protection systems, pushing many of those most at risk into adverse coping strategies.

In response to the pandemic, the Inter-Agency Standing Committee has issued detailed guidance advising humanitarian actors to take extra care to assess the possible impacts of Covid-19 prevention, mitigation and response measures on the most vulnerable among populations – including those with disabilities. It recognises that both the disease itself and prevention and control measures may affect people very differently.

Who are ‘the most vulnerable’?

This raises a number of key questions. Is the humanitarian sector ready to play its full part in building a more inclusive post-Covid-19 world? Are humanitarian actors clear about who or what is meant by ‘the most vulnerable’, or what it is that makes them vulnerable? And are they equipped to identify and include the most vulnerable in their responses? These questions go to the heart of one of the sector’s most valued principles: that protection and assistance must be provided on the basis of need alone, giving priority to those in most acute distress without discrimination.

In the case of persons with disabilities, these questions are critical. A Charter on Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities in Humanitarian Action has been signed by over 200 humanitarian stakeholders since its launch in 2016. But the humanitarian sector is only just beginning to wake up to the role that disabilities play in the dynamics of risk and vulnerability, and the extent to which persons with disabilities have been marginalised from humanitarian action.

In Jordan, for example, UNHCR’s standard registration system had only identified around 2% of registered refugees as having a disability. However a focused survey led by Humanity & Inclusion in 2016 found that over ten times that number had some kind of disability – closer to 28%. In some governorates in Syria, a recent disability prevalence survey found that most households had at least one member with a disability – much higher numbers than the single-digit percentages that are often assumed by humanitarian organisations.

Will Covid-19 be the catalyst to bridge the disability data gap?

The lack of reliable disability-related data and analysis is paramount among the many barriers hampering inclusion of persons with disabilities in humanitarian programming. Despite increasing awareness about the risks facing people with disabilities, humanitarian actors generally lack even the most basic information about them. This includes how many people are affected, their needs and capacities, the threats and barriers that they face, and their access to services. How can the Covid-19 response, or any humanitarian response, be principled and impartial without this information?

As the familiar adage goes, what isn’t counted doesn’t tend to count. The mainstreaming of disability inclusion needs to extend across every level, cluster and phase of humanitarian programming and action. To support this, good data and information on disabilities and barriers to inclusion are needed, as is stronger coordination among humanitarian actors in collecting, sharing and using this data. This will require substantial investment. Humanitarian actors must be held accountable for ensuring that persons with disabilities are fully involved at every stage in the collection of this data and the decisions and practices that will be informed by it.

The Covid-19 pandemic has added substantially to the urgency of this challenge. In drawing more attention to the complex dynamics of vulnerability and the implications of a range of compounding and intersecting risks for persons with disabilities, the pandemic could catalyse more inclusive humanitarian action. It is only when the sector begins to put its money where its mouth is on disability inclusion that persons with disabilities will genuinely start to count in humanitarian programming.