A person with a physical disability in a refugee camp sitted near a tent and his wheel chair

Persons with Disabilities in Humanitarian Programming: IASC Guidelines

Imagine navigating the chaos of an unfolding crisis as a person with a disability, facing not only the immediate threats of a disaster or war but also a world ill-prepared to support and accommodate your unique needs.

Reuters, 2017 (Greek-Macedonian border)

For too long, this has been the harsh reality for persons with disabilities, who remain invisible within uprooted communities, often overlooked by humanitarians, amidst the urgency of assistance needed. In a previous article, I shared real life stories of refugees with disabilities on the move and the unique challenges that impair them from receiving tailored assistance and relevant information.

Humanitarian contexts differ in many ways and thus, suitable strategies must be explored to facilitate the inclusiveness of programs, protection mechanisms, and ensure proper identification of persons with physical, intellectual, psychosocial and sensory disabilities for targeted intervention.

In a bid to harmonize the steps humanitarian actors must take to achieve inclusive programming; the Inter Agency Standing Committee (IASC) Task Force on Disability Inclusion developed a set of guidelines containing key approaches, cross-thematic considerations and cluster specific inclusion requirements. These guidelines set a crucial standard for ensuring that the needs and rights of persons with disabilities are respected, protected and promoted during humanitarian crises; throughout humanitarian preparedness, response and recovery. It aligns with the provisions of the UN Charter on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the International Humanitarian Law and other legal instruments that promote rights-based programming.

This article will delve into the contextual meaning of “Barriers and Enablers” and further elaborate on the 4-must-do-actions proposed by the IASC Guidelines for the Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities in Humanitarian Action.

Barriers and Enablers

Barriers faced by persons with disabilities increase their risks and vulnerabilities and further deter them from accessing assistance. Barriers can be in the form of:

(1) negative attitudes (rooted in cultural or religious norms, unequal distribution of power, stigma etc), (2) physical obstacles that prevent or restrict persons with disabilities from accessing information or built environment, (3) Laws, policies or institutionalized practices.

Analyzing what kinds of barriers exist during baseline assessments and how it impacts on persons with disabilities is an important first step, and including indicators in the project framework design that would track how the identified barriers are minimized and eliminated are the next steps to foster inclusive program design.

According to the guideline; “Enablers are measures that remove barriers, or reduce their effects, and improve resilience or protection of persons with disabilities” 

Enablers could be in the form of specialized support services, strengthening of the safety nets of persons with disabilities, facilitated access to aid, provision of assistive devices and most importantly, allocating the right amount of budget for these reasonable accommodations.  

By removing barriers and implementing enablers, humanitarian organizations and communities can ensure that persons with disabilities are not left behind during crises, fostering a more inclusive and resilient society. Recognizing the unique needs of this population is a fundamental step toward building a more inclusive and equitable world for everyone, regardless of their abilities.

Illustration from IASC Guidelines, 2019

The Four Must-Do-Actions

To put the guidelines into action effectively, these four must-do-actions, when understood and implemented, can revolutionize how humanitarian actors address the needs and rights of persons with disabilities during crises.

  1. Promote meaningful participation

The saying “nothing about us without us”, is not just a mantra but in practice, when the persons in need of humanitarian assistance are not properly identified and consulted through a well coordinated assessment process to know their needs, before and during the project design, then the project would be set up to fail. As persons with disabilities have been identified as one of the most affected and most vulnerable groups in every emergency context, they should therefore be consulted and meaningfully engaged throughout the project cycle (planning, design, implementation, monitoring or evaluation). 

The awareness and understanding of the unique needs and rights of persons with disabilities are the first steps toward inclusion. Humanitarian organizations and staff should undergo training and capacity-building to understand the kinds of disabilities and modifications required for each cluster intervention in line with Universal Design Principles. 

Persons with disabilities should be recruited as staff and technical advisors, community mobilizers and as front-line workers. Organizations of Persons with Disabilities (OPDs) should also be consulted for their inputs into program design and implementation modalities and collaborated with to ensure wider reach to persons with disabilities.

2. Remove barriers

Barriers are factors that hinder participation and create further impairments. Humanitarian emergencies present multiple barriers and challenges to persons with disabilities, especially because of the difficulty in movement, accessing essential supplies, scarcity of cash, goods and services and competition for the limited available services (as the case may be). It is crucial for humanitarians to consciously conduct a risk assessment (including contextual scenarios of persons with disabilities) to identify and eliminate or mitigate the impact of attitudinal, environmental, and institutional barriers. 

3. Empower persons with disabilities; support them to develop their capacities

Humanitarians first need to develop their own knowledge on disability and the key considerations for inclusion per intervention cluster. Working with OPDs have been considered best practice to reach more persons with disabilities in emergencies. Humanitarian projects should implement capacity building activities for OPDs, to improve their knowledge on technical approaches for project management and evaluation, leadership, and the necessary skills they need to boost their participation in the humanitarian coordination mechanism.

Most importantly, the knowledge and capacities of persons with disabilities and their families should be assessed and project activities should target the improvement of their capacities. Directly involving them in the project design stage adds huge value to the project, providing practical tips on how humanitarian action can be more inclusive.

4. Disaggregate data for monitoring inclusion

Disaggregating project data (barriers, needs assessments and project evaluation) by sex, age, and disability is one of the ways to mainstream intersectionality in humanitarian programming. The Washington Group Set of Questions and UNICEF-Washington are recommended tools for data collection and documentation at the early stages of the identification of persons in need of assistance. These tools help humanitarians to understand the type of disability and the level of functionality or difficulties of the persons with disabilities, in order to better design suitable interventions. 

Considering the multi-faceted vulnerabilities of persons with disabilities in emergency contexts, these holistic approaches, leading to a twin-track approach would ensure the reasonable accommodation of persons with disabilities. By fostering an inclusive mindset within the humanitarian community, we would break down the barriers that have historically excluded persons with disabilities from receiving assistance.

The IASC guidelines offer a roadmap, a call to action, and a vision for an inclusive humanitarian Action across regions. You can take a deeper dive into the guidelines to see in detail how to implement each of these actions: here 

Together, we strive to create a world where no one is left behind, regardless of their abilities, in times of crisis!

Deborah Brown Majekodunmi

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