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People with Disabilities: The Forgotten Story in Humanitarian Emergencies

March 27, 2011

When I learned about the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in Japan and the devastation that followed, I worried.  I watched the early figures estimating how many people might have died.  I worried that the numbers would rise in the coming days as more bodies were found.  I worried for the loved ones left behind—the people desperately searching for someone missing, for someone who might never come home again.  If there was a home to return to.  I read of people, now left homeless, living in tents.  I worried whether they had enough food, water, and warmth. 

But I didn’t only worry about these things.  I also worried about the people not mentioned in most news stories about Japan at all.  I worried about people with disabilities.  I thought of the earthquake that struck Haiti last year—a country where people with disabilities already experienced severe stigmatization.  I thought of hurricane Katrina in the United States in 2005, in which people with disabilities could not evacuate New Orleans because nothing was done to make accessible transportation available to them.  I thought of another tsunami that struck India, Indonesia, Thailand, and other nations in late 2004.  A report from the International Disability Rights Monitor indicates that people with disabilities in these countries were often excluded from services made available to non-disabled members of their communities.

I thought of the many disasters in which people with disabilities were abandoned when others were evacuated, left out when others received food and assistance, or simply forgotten when emergency plans were made.  And I worried for people with disabilities in Japan today.  Would they confront a similar fate in the first days and weeks after the earthquake and tsunami?

In some ways, the answer is distressingly familiar.  According to reports from contacts in Japan, people on respirators are struggling to breathe.  Power outages make it difficult for them to obtain the electrical power they need to maintain their respirators, and severe fuel shortages make it difficult for them to run portable generators.  When the Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan made an urgent address to the nation, his remarks reportedly were not captioned or translated into Japanese Sign Language for deaf viewers.  Blind people in Japan are reportedly uncertain what services are available to them because not all announcements are made orally.  Many personal attendants have been unable to reach their clients because of gas shortages.

But a positive trend has emerged in Japan and around the world.  Immediately after the earthquake and tsunami, the disability community in Japan took action.  They released an appeal to their government urging them to ensure that shelters, information, communication, and support services are all accessible to people with disabilities.  Disabled People’s Organizations (DPOs) also established the Relief Headquarters for Persons with Disabilities of Tohoku-Kanto Great Earthquake on March 15, only four days after the earthquake.  And people in Japan have been using email, a blog site, and twitter to reach out to the global disability community to ask for our support. 

People with disabilities in Japan still confront significant challenges.  Not only do they continue to face barriers in receiving assistance from mainstream relief efforts but they also have not been adequately covered by news media.  A search at turns up very little information from on-line news publications about people with disabilities in Japan.  Even local media in Japan, according to one local observer, have mostly not mentioned the experiences of people with disabilities.  Only after a full week had passed did one TV program focus on the challenges experienced by elderly people.  The lack of media attention makes it that much harder for the Relief Headquarters for Persons with Disabilities to raise the funds they need to deliver local assistance.

We at the US International Council on Disabilities (USICD) have been proud to be able to serve by helping amplify the messages we receive from Japan to the US disability community.  Readers may visit our Humanitarian Response page to read news, updates, and documents about the situation for people with disabilities in Japan.  I am continuing to monitor the situation in Japan and will post more information at the USICD website as it becomes available. 

In the meantime: the disability community in Japan continues to need your help.  Click for instructions on how to donate to Relief Headquarters in Japan.

One Comment leave one →
  1. April 5, 2011 6:57 pm

    Hi Andrea,

    I volunteer for Foundation El Portavoz, a non-profit organization located in Costa Rica. One of our most succesful projects is El Portavoz newspaper, dedicated to informing the population with disability about their rights and other interesting topics related to this important subject.

    Whilst looking for information regarding the Japan Earthquake and disability, I came across your article and would like to kindly request permission to translate your text in spanish to post on our website. If our request is accepted please indicate how you would like to be credited.

    Many thanks

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