Aid out of Reach: untold stories from people with disabilities

Humanitarian organisations can learn a lot from what happened during the Cyclone Idai aid response in Mozambique.

Light for the World
A pandemia do COVID-19 afectou a vida do Daniel assim como a tantas outras crianças pelo mundo, elas tiveram de abdicar de suas brincadeiras ao ar livre para estarem mais protegidas do coronavírus em casa.
Light for the World/2020/Miraldina Gabriel
26 June 2020

The cyclone and its impact made global headlines. The NGO community reacted fast. More than 400 organisations and 1,000 aid workers were rapidly deployed to the affected areas of Mozambique. 

But what happened next remains untold.

In partnership with UNICEF, and with financial support from the Government of Norway, Light for the World produced Aid out of Reach, a report documenting the experiences of people with disabilities, many who were the hardest hit by Cyclone Idai in 2019. 

Their stories, which form the basis of our recommendations, can help key actors improve their responses to other crises, including COVID-19.

João, Isabel and Maria

“When the cyclone started, we were inside the house. I am blind, and my wife cannot walk properly,” said João from Beira, Sofala’s capital. “We had to wait for my youngest son. He carried my wife on his back and went with her to our neighbours’ house to seek shelter. The coconut trees were falling, the area was flooded with water up to the knee, and iron sheets were flying from the roof.”

“We didn’t know of anyone going to resettlement sites,” João’s wife, Isabel, added, “we didn’t even hear of it until you asked us.”

People who managed to get to an accommodation centre fared no better. 

“In the school they cooked food, but it was difficult to get a plate for those who cannot see,” Maria told us. “If there is a fight over food, those who are blind will lose over those who can see. I addressed this issue and said that we need to get priority, but they ignored me.”

The right to protection

People with disabilities have a right to protection in humanitarian emergencies and natural disasters.

But they had great trouble reaching the distribution sites for aid. 

“Unfortunately, we didn’t receive any food,” Helena told us.  “Most aid was provided to those people living in resettlement sites. So, people staying at home didn’t receive anything.”

Of those who did go to an accommodation centre, many quickly returned home because they felt discriminated against by staff and other people, they did not receive aid, or they felt ashamed or laughed at. 

And those that stayed found using toilets and taps virtually impossible, with accommodation centres lacking basic adaptations – like grab bars in toilets – that makes these facilities accessible.

Response plans should take the needs of people with disabilities into account. This can only be done if humanitarian agencies actively engage with them.

“Disability inclusion often fails, because we fail to plan for it. Accessibility considerations and appropriate resource allocations should be done starting from the design phase of any programme, and continue through its implementation and monitoring”, says Katarina Johannson, UNICEF Mozambique Representative a.i.. “And it is not only about an emergency response like Idai or Covid-19. We need to invest in system strengthening in the development context, build appropriate mechanisms in regular systems that can be geared towards emergency response when necessary. When children with disabilities go to school, have access to health, WASH and protection services, and are included in the everyday life of their communities, they are less like to be overlooked in times of emergency.”

Make sure information is accessible

Children and adults with disabilities felt they did not receive timely or accurate information. Some people with hearing impairments even reported they were given zero warning about the known, approaching cyclone due to inaccessible information.

As one representative of a DPO for people who are deaf and have hearing impairments told us: “I heard from one of our members that she noticed that her roof was gone when she woke up to visit the toilet.”

In some cases, people only found out about aid distribution well after the event.

“The ones from the distribution called my name and because I have a hearing impairment, I couldn’t hear it,” said 53-year-old Antónia. “When I went there to explain that I didn’t hear my name being called, they said that the food already ran out, and we don’t have anything else to give to you.” Antónia and her sick child were left with nothing. When we spoke to her, she hadn’t eaten for two days.

To receive aid, you need to know when and where it will take place. 

Include disabled people’s organisations

Organisations responding to crises must make the inclusion of people with disabilities in emergency response deliberate and purposeful—through planning, human resource and budget allocation.

Their advice can help avoid many pitfalls including situations where people with disabilities miss out on food distribution or end up waiting in long lines, despite difficulties standing due to physical impairment.

A 38-year-old man with one leg told us. “If your name starts with the letter ‘S’, you would stand for a long time or even have to wait till the next day. They are calling people based on alphabetical order. […]. We couldn’t do anything but wait and wait.”

DPOs said they had largely been shut out of the distribution process.  They were not asked to help identify people who needed to receive aid, nor were they asked to assist with distribution. 

Yet they are the closest link to people with disabilities. They know where they live in the affected communities and understand their needs best.

Some good news

Although there were many shortcomings in the response to Cyclone Idai, some important progress towards supporting people with disabilities during disasters has been made.

This includes the creation of a Disability Working Group which now represents people with disabilities in the humanitarian cluster system in Mozambique – including during the COVID-19 response.

But much more needs to be done. 

Practical lessons for the future

Humanitarian groups can learn a lot from the experiences of people with disabilities. Our report lists concrete actions based on those experiences.

Fundamental to any solution is gathering data. Women and men, girls and boys with disabilities need to be recognised and quantified – something which doesn’t happen if aid providers don’t know what disability is or how to measure it.

In some cases, DPOs developed and pushed their own lists of people requiring assistance, which then led to aid being received from either government or non-governmental actors. This shows how aid could work better in the future in many crisis settings!

Other practical lessons for aid providers include prioritising people based on their impairment or other vulnerability, rather than where their name sits in the alphabet. 

Different methods for communication should be used, such as audio and printed material with easy-to-understand information. Ideally, this would be complemented by ‘tent-to-tent warning’ with a sign-language interpreter.

Providing capacity building on disability inclusion to staff members involved in humanitarian response can help with all of these measures.

Most of all though, it’s vital that aid providers involve organisations that represent people with disabilities in any emergency response. They are the closest link to people with disabilities. They know where they live in the affected communities and understand their needs best.


COVID-19 and the way forward

To this day, an emergency situation continues to persist in Mozambique post-Cyclone Idai, and people with disabilities are still suffering.

To make matters worse, this population now also faces the health and economic crisis caused by COVID-19.

“We want to tackle barriers people with disabilities face in accessing relief, protection and recovery support in times of crisis,” says Zicai Zacarias, National Director of Light for the World Mozambique.  

The COVID-19 crisis is a test case for humanitarian actors. We urge the aid community to listen to the stories of people with disabilities who survived – and take swift action – to help save lives. 

 Read the full report here.



*Disclaimer: the findings, interpretations and conclusions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or views of UNICEF or the Government of Norway