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Themes: Assistive & Accessible Technology

Humanitarian assistance and AT: A conversation with Dr Maria Kett

Colour profile image of Dr. Maria Kett

Dr Maria Kett

Co-Founder, Associate Director and Head of Humanitarian and Associate Professor at UCL

Humanitarian interventions and the importance of Assistive Technology:

If you are a disabled person, forced to flee your home due to humanitarian crisis - having access to your Assistive Technology can be crucial to survival. For those who acquire a new disability as a result of humanitarian conflict and disaster - Assistive Technology may be crucial to your rehabilitation and participation.

Dr Maria Kett, met with GDI Hub Lead for Advocacy and Engagement, Katherine Perry, to discuss Humanitarian Aid and Assistive Technology.

Dr Maria Kett is a social anthropologist by training, and has worked in over a dozen countries in Africa and Asia, leading on a number of research programmes on disability and international development. She is a co-founder of the GDI Hub, leading on the humanitarian-focused work.

"Inclusion in situations of conflict and crisis" is a key theme of the Global Disability Summit 2022.

How will you #CommitToChange?

Floods in an informal settlement. Photo credit Angus Stewart.
Floods in an informal settlement. Photo credit Angus Stewart.

Katherine:

Why are disabled people more likely to experience the consequences of humanitarian or climate disasters?

Maria:

There are some circumstances where people with disabilities may be more at risk because of the already existing marginalization, stigma, exclusion. Disabled people are less likely to be included in efforts to mitigate or adapt to those events or humanitarian responses for example.

We're not asking for more or better responses for people with disabilities, but that existing responses should be inclusive of, and take consideration of the fact that people with disabilities might be more vulnerable - and we use that term advisedly - more vulnerable because of the particular situations they might find themselves in rather than a health or medical condition, per se.

However, it's also true to say that climate change is leading to different sets of health conditions and circumstances. We're seeing extreme heat events leading to increased respiratory diseases and other potentially disabling conditions such as malaria. So the point is that because of those pre-existing people with disabilities are made even more vulnerable.

Katherine:

So why is assistive technology important in humanitarian and climate crises?

Maria:

Well, I guess it's the same reason it's important for everything else. Without access to goods or services people with disabilities tend to get left out or left behind; and if they don't have the necessary technologies they need to enable them to have the same level of access with everybody else, then they're going to get left even further behind.

In cases where people have to flee or leave their homes or even countries in a hurry, there is often the perception that people with disabilities, for example, say somebody in a wheelchair, will slow the efforts down and so there is a risk they will be left behind. Families may want to go back and get them, but circumstances may not enable them to, if it's a sudden arrival of warring factions or, fighting forces, then, people flee, they are literally running for their lives and certain types of impairments may not be able to do that, and may be left behind in those circumstances.

Having assistive devices can literally help people to get out of those situations in the first place, and also help the recovery.

We know that in the aftermath of any disasters, there will be people who become newly impaired, those with pre-existing disabilities but have lost their devices, and those who had pre-existing disabilities but perhaps didn't have access to the assistive technologies in the first place.

And unfortunately, for many refugees and internally displaced people or people affected by humanitarian disasters, they don't have that much good access to goods and services in the first place.

I think assistive devices haven't been prioritized because they haven't been seen as a very important part in humanitarian response - food, water, shelter, sanitation, healthcare, protection etc. are seen as the really key, lifesaving initiative but I think in the same way that there is an increased focus on access to education, employment, cash etc in humanitarian assistance, then I think we need to be thinking differently about how we prioritize humanitarian aid and assistive devices.

For example, a walking stick can make a whole lot of difference to that person's life and whether they can get out and about, whether they can make it to the end of the street or the end of their camp or not.

We need to make AT part of the whole systematic response to humanitarian disasters, included in funding allocated to ensure thar people with disabilities have the same level of access to the goods and services that other people have – and in line with their rights under Article 11 of the United Nations CRPD.

A lady using crutches navigates an informal settlement in Sierra Leone. Photo Credit Angus Stewart.
A lady using crutches navigates an informal settlement in Sierra Leone. Photo Credit Angus Stewart.

Katherine:

Why are people with disabilities left behind?

Maria:

People in humanitarian situations are certainly in precarious and often life-threatening situations. Their rights are often derogated. Many of these situations have ground on for years and years and years, and those affected are often forgotten, often marginalized.

Think about those living in the camps in Bangladesh - these are people who have been displaced from their homes, fled across an international border but aren't according full status as refugees. Then they have fires in the camps, then they have floods in the camps, and then they have COVID in the camps. How many more of these compounding issues can happen to people?

If you have a disability in that situation, you're already disadvantaged and so all of those things, further compound that disadvantage.

You know if you're a woman, you're more disadvantaged, if you're older, or very young, - all of these things further compound your level of disadvantage.

If your disabled and marginalised or don't know how to access things like information, if everyone else knows where to go to the distribution points of collect the food rations or the fresh water and you're the last person to know, well - you're in the back of the queue.

I think increasingly now in the humanitarian sector we're thinking about how we treat people in a more individual, person-centred way, . So we don't have one size response fits all.

There are now a lot more guidelines [such as the IASC Guidelines on the Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities in Humanitarian Action], there’s the UN Convention [on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities] there’s a lot of important documents, texts, legislations that are there to support the inclusion of people with disabilities. Increasingly humanitarian response plans are more aware of people with disabilities but now we need to think how different impairment groups are included, for example, e people with learning difficulties, and people who have complex needs; as well as wider groups such as caregivers, mothers, and community groups, etc. So, I think we just need to be clear that one size doesn't fit all.

We need to just think in a more nuanced way about how we approach inclusion across the humanitarian setting in general.

Katherine:

And last question from me. If someone reads this blog. What do you want them to take away with them, what's the one thing you want them to understand about humanitarian settings and disability?

Maria:

I want them to see that there has been progress. There are tools to help inclusion, there are organizations of people with disabilities who are working on this, and who can be engaged with.

These are awful situations that humans shouldn't have to find themselves in, but sadly do. Increasingly, we're seeing how climate change is affecting everybody in higher income countries and lower income countries. So I guess it's just to think, there's resources out there to do it better and differently, and just to be aware if you're not seeing people with disabilities in your programs really, really, ask yourself why. Because if you're not - you should be.

Further information and Contact

You can find out more about Maria's research here. And if you would like to get in touch with GDI Hub about this blog or the work you are doing in the humanitarian field and Assistive Technology then please contact Lead for Advocacy Katherine Perry: katherine.perry@ucl.ac.uk