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News from New York: Women Commission's report on People with disabilities

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Challenges of the 21st Century-5
Women’s Commission releases landmark report on refugees with disabilities:
Voice of 3.5 million people with disabilities among the world’s 35 million displaced people

Abdi Salah, a 28 year old native Somalian refugee with disability with members of International Rescue Committee. Photos courtesy: Diana Quick (Women' s Commission).

New York, June 23, 2008- "Refugees with disabilities are among the most underserved and neglected people in the world", according to “Disabilities Among Refugees and Conflict-Affected Populations,” a special report released today by the Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children. This report is the first such major report to address the critical needs of a virtually invisible population: refugees and people displaced within their own countries who suffer from physical, sensory or mental disabilities.

There are an estimated 3.5 million displaced people living with disabilities in refugee camps and urban slum settlements. The Women's Commission declares “the report is the culmination of a six-month project led by the Women’s Commission and co-funded by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). It is based on fact-finding missions to Ecuador, Yemen, Jordan, Thailand and Nepal (as well as significant field input from Darfur and Kenya), interviews with United Nations agencies and local organizations on the ground, and focus group discussions with refugees and others uprooted from their homes. Colombian, Somali, Iraqi, Burmese, Bhutanese and Sudanese populations were studied in camps and urban environments, in both emergency and protracted situations, with a particular focus on women, children and adolescents."
Dale Buscher, Director of Protection at the Women’s Commission.

Dale Buscher, Director of Protection at the Women’s Commission, presented a slide show of the report and detailed how it was prepared and what impact it will make in the future.

The author of the report is Rachael Reilly, consultant to the Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children. The field research was conducted by Ravi Sharma Chapagain, Caritas Nepal; Ann McAllen, World Education, Thailand; Chiara Buono, HIAS, Ecuador; Laila Abubaker Bashumaila (Director), Faiza Ali Hunaishi, Khadra Adem, Mohamed Ben Mohamed, Abdulaziz Mohamed Mahmood, Fuad Abdulkareem, Abdullah Al-Duhaimi, Basel Ahmed Abdullah, Anwer Abdulrahim and Ahmed Saeed Saleh, Center for Persons with Special Needs, Al-Mansora, Aden, Republic of Yemen; and Mohamad Abu Qtesh, Omar Mahmoud Fares Al-Mashareh, Heba Mansour Essa, Ahmad Arabiyat, Mohammad Abdulraheem Abu Fares, Ahmad Musalam, Zinat Mohamad and Mohamad Mansour, researchers affiliated with the Landmine Survivors Network, Jordan.

Carolyn Makinson, Executive Director of the Women’s Commission.

Carolyn Makinson, Executive Director of the Women’s Commission said “Being uprooted from one’s home is an enormous challenge in itself, but refugees with disabilities face even greater hardship and isolation and are all but forgotten by their communities and by the world.”

She further emphasized “Our report confirms that their needs must be addressed at the very start of any emergency. It is critical that refugee camps are built with easy access to shelter, food and water and opportunities must be created for them to fully contribute to society."

António Guterres of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. Photo courtesy: UNHCR

António Guterres of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees added “The Women’s Commission sought to place refugees with disabilities higher on the international agenda and to provide tools and guidance for improving critical assistance.”

Guterres wrote eloquently in his foreword: "Too often invisible, too often forgotten and too often overlooked, refugees with disabilities are among the most isolated, socially excluded and marginalized of all displaced populations. As this pioneering research by the Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children reveals, those with disabilities are more limited by our actions than by their own physical and mental abilities. The way we design and construct camps can impede their access to vital services; the way we distribute food without taking their specific needs into account impacts their health and safety; the way we exclude them from vocational training and income generation programs promotes the view that they are helpless and dependent; and when we don’t actively encourage their participation in refugee leadership structures, we give the impression that they are less able."

Jean Kennedy Smith, former U.S. Ambassador to Ireland.

Speaking at the report's introduction in New York, Jean Kennedy Smith, 80, former U.S. Ambassador to Ireland (1993-1998) and beloved younger sister of John F. Kennedy, the thirty-fifth President of the United States (1961-1963), emphasized the need to help and protect displaced people with disabilities. She has been a pioneer humanitarian since the 1960s, especially on behalf of people with disabilities.

Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith and Pradeep Thapa Magar, Editor-in-Chief, USNepalOnline.Com. Photos courtesy: Diana Quick (Women' s Commission)

When I met with her at the event she spoke proudly of her older sister Eunice Shriver who in 1968 started the Special Olympics to provide people with intellectual disabilities continuing opportunities to realize their potential, develop physical fitness, demonstrate courage and experience joy and friendship. Special Olympics currently serves 2.5 million people in more than 200 Programs in over 180 countries including 500,000 athletes in China, 210,000 in India, and 550,000 in the United States. Special Olympics World Games were held in Ireland in 2003, in Japan in 2005 and in China in 2007.

Jean Kennedy Smith is the eighth child and youngest daughter of Rose and Joseph Kennedy. Since 1964, Ambassador Smith has been a member of the Board of Trustees of the Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. Foundation, which provides grants to promote awareness and advocacy in the field of mental retardation. She has also served on the boards of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

In 1974, Smith founded VSA Arts (formerly Very Special Arts), an international nonprofit that uses the arts to include people with disabilities in all aspects of society. She co-authored a book on the subject, Chronicles of Courage: Very Special Artists, with George Plimpton. It was published by Random House in April 1993.

Abdi Salah, a 28 year old native Somalian refugee with disability.

Abdi Salah, a 28 year old native Somalian refugee with disability was the star of today’s event. Disabled by polio at the age of one and displaced by civil war at the age of eleven he has spent much of his young life living in refugee camps throughout Kenya. In 2005, Abdi was resettled in the U.S. by UNHCR Nairobi. As a result of his English language ability and computer skills, he qualified for an employment program with the International Rescue Committee’s resettlement office in Atlanta, Georgia.

What is in the report?

Participants at the today's event.

The challenges identified by the report were the identification and accumulation of real data on the numbers of people with disabilities. This population is currently neither counted in refugee registration drives nor identified in data collection rounds. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that there are 600 million people with disabilities worldwide—between 7 and 10% of the world’s population. Based on this estimate, the Women’s Commission believes that between 2.5 and 3.5 million of the world’s 35 million displaced people also live with disabilities; however, among those who have fled conflict or natural disasters, the number may be even higher.

Participants at the today's event. Photos courtesy: Diana Quick (Women' s Commission).

The report highlights serious problems with the physical layout and infrastructure in the camps-few services are barrier-free to people with disabilities, including toilets, shelters and health facilities. In general, no special accommodations are made for getting food or other supplies that refugees with disabilities need on a daily basis. Many are homebound, rarely leaving their shelters. Not surprisingly, their voices go unheard in decision-making activities of their communities.

To reinforce the report's findings and improve protection and services for refugees with disabilities, the Women's Commission created a resource kit to provide practical guidance for UNHCR and humanitarian agency field staff.

Some of the key findings of the report are:
-Refugees with disabilities are among the most hidden, neglected and socially excluded of all displaced people in the world.
-They are excluded from or unable to access mainstream assistance programs as a result of attitudinal, physical and social barriers and are forgotten in the establishment of specialized and targeted services.
-Refugees with disabilities are more isolated following their displacement than they were in their home communities and their potential to contribute and participate is seldom recognized.

The report's key recommendations are as follows:
-Make camp infrastructure, facilities and services accessible.
-Set up standardized data collection systems on the number, age, gender and profile of displaced persons with disabilities in order to enhance their protection and assistance.
-Conduct community awareness-raising campaigns to promote tolerance, respect and understanding.
-Promote full and equal access to mainstream services such as shelter, water and sanitation, food and nutrition, health and mental health services, education, vocational and skills training, income generation and employment opportunities.
-Provide targeted services as needed – specialized health care, physical rehabilitation and prosthetics clinics, assistive devices, nutritionally appropriate food, special needs education, and protection monitoring and reporting mechanisms.
-Ensure full access to all durable solutions (return, local integration and third country resettlement).
-Build alliances with local disability providers to support the integration of displaced persons with disabilities into local disability services.

-Pradeep Thapa Magar in New York. Comments? 551-358-7726

Special thanks:
Photos courtesy: Diana Quick, Director of Communications, Women's Commission
Theresa Pantazopoulos, Senior Media Officer, Women's Commission

Website: www.womenscommission.org

Read full report at:

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