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This year the International Day for Disaster Reduction will focus on how disabled people are affected by disasters. Motivation’s Al Lamb talks here about how we can genuinely include disabled people in disaster response.

What makes a person disabled? Is it because they have a physical impairment or is it because society has been designed to put obstacles in their way, and does it really matter when providing humanitarian services in poverty or disaster-stricken regions? As a seasoned humanitarian worker, I am guilty of not always having given it much thought. And maybe you haven’t either? But what is the point of ‘going the whole nine yards’ if those you are helping can’t make it across one?

I, like you (probably), have spent many years responding to disasters, conflict and post-conflict situations, setting up food and water distribution points, basic healthcare camps and female-only violence centres. I have even ensured that ramps have been built leading up to these services, and have worked diligently to meet the needs of the people coming into the centres. But I have often given little thought to the 200 metres of deep sand leading to the ramp, to the provision of wheelchairs, or to those who haven’t come in. Those who can’t come in.

These days I work for the mobility charity, Motivation and we are dedicated to providing fit-for-purpose wheelchairs to those living in poverty across the world. And this has made me think again. With hindsight, I can see the impact made by the way the world is – the way buildings and camps etc. are – designed. It has a profound effect on the lives of disabled people. It makes the difference between them being part of the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ – literally. And so, yes, our definition of disability does matter.

Motivation subscribes to the social model of disability. We believe that physical impairment in and of itself is not a barrier to quality of life. Rather, it’s the attitudes and provision of society around those with a physical impairment that makes them disabled. And this is all the more true in disaster and rapid-evacuation-in-conflict situations when people often get separated from their mobility aids or they get destroyed. When this happens, all other forms of relief are pointless to disabled people. Access to food or NFI distribution, and to water and basic healthcare become an impossibility for the most vulnerable members of an affected population – unless we can design the micro-communities we set up in such a way as to enable genuine access for all.

So please join me on Sunday’s International Day for Disaster Reduction (a day when we are being asked to remember disabled people) in re-evaluating your definition of disability and, more importantly, in ensuring that disabled people can access the services you set up. After all, as the saying goes, it may indeed be “better to give than to receive” – but only if the gift is, in fact, received!

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