Celebration of the International Day for Disaster Reduction with the Community Based Disaster Risk Reduction teams of Rengen Sub-county in Kotido. Special recognition to Mr. Francis Lowak, an active leader in Disaster Risk Reduction in his community, he lives with a disability that does not allow him to walk, nevertheless despite of his physical challenges, he is actively involved during Risk Assessments, training and community awareness. The local authorities participated actively during the day, transmitting the key message Disability is Not Inability. © 2013 UN ISDR

Recent disasters have brought worldwide attention to how disasters disproportionately affect persons with disability and their families. The World Report on Disabilities estimates approximately 15 percent of the global population experience disability (World Health Organization and World Bank 2011). While definitions vary from country to country, current conceptualizations view disability as arising from the interaction of individual characteristics and the surrounding environment (Kelman & Stough, 2015). Accommodations in the home and workplace, along with accessible buildings, personal assistance, and social system supports can enable people with disabilities to live independently and productively within their communities. However, empirical disaster research confirms that individuals with disabilities are at higher risk for death, injury, loss of property, and difficulties during sheltering. In addition they are often overlooked post-disaster and require more intensive disaster case management (Peek & Stough, 2010; Twigg, Kett, Bottomley, Tan, & Nasreddin, 2011; Stough, Sharp, Resch, Decker, & Wilker, 2015; Van Willigen). Nevertheless, until recently, international policy-makers have seldom considered the experiences of people with disabilities within the context of disaster.

The Third United Nations World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction (WCDRR) was held in March of 2015 in Sendai, Japan. The conference was attended by over 25 heads of State and Government, dozens of senior officials, and delegates from 187 countries (United Nations, 2015a). The conference included ministerial roundtables, high-level multi-stakeholder partnership dialogues, working sessions and many other events organized in and around the conference venue (United Nations, 2015a). On the last day of the conference, the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030 (SDFRR) was adopted, and it was subsequently endorsed by the UN General Assembly. The contents of the SFDRR notably reflect a shift in emphasis from disaster management to one of disaster risk reduction (United Nations, 2015b). The Sendai Framework document identifies seven global targets and lays out expected outcomes, goals, guiding principles, and four priorities for action (United Nations, 2015b). It additionally addresses the role of stakeholders and calls for international cooperation and global partnership in disaster risk reduction.

Disabilities and Disasters

Recent disasters have brought worldwide attention to the experiences of people with disabilities. During Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Benilda Caixeta drowned in her wheelchair as flood waters rose around her. In The Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011, people with hearing impairments were not alerted to the tsunami that followed the earthquake, and people with visual impairments could not navigate evacuation routes: The reported mortality rate among persons with disabilities was twice that of the rest of the population. Following the Indian Ocean Tsunami in 2004, over half of the 145 students with disabilities attending schools overseen by the Indonesia Society for the Care for Children with Disabilities (YPAC) in Banda Aceh remain missing or unaccounted for.

The Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (SFDRR) draws new attention to the role and experiences of persons with disabilities in disaster.1 In the preamble, the SFDRR calls for “a more people-centered, preventative approach to disaster risk (United Nations, 2015b, p. 8) and for governments to engage with a wide range of relevant stakeholders, including persons with disabilities, in the design and implementation of policies, plans and standards. Specifically, it states that “Governments should engage with relevant stakeholders, including women, children and youth, persons with disabilities, poor people, migrants, indigenous peoples, volunteers, the community of practitioners, and older persons in the design and implementation of policies, plans and standards.” The SFDRR goes on to explicitly mention persons with disabilities five times, and additional indirect references occur throughout the document. In contrast, the Sendai’s predecessor documents2, did not reference persons with disabilities at all.3

The SFDRR not only mentions persons with disabilities and their experiences with disaster, it uses language and concepts deeply rooted in the history of disability studies.4 While subtleties in meaning and implications of these disability-related concepts may not be initially apparent to disaster scholars, the SFDRR interweaves disability-related terms throughout the text, which have potential utility for other groups traditionally considered vulnerable5 in disaster. Indeed, disability status often co-occurs with factors experienced by other populations disproportionately vulnerable to disaster, principally poverty and social discrimination, but also under employment, lower levels of education, unsafe housing, abuse, and limited access to health care.

Three concepts with theoretical grounding in disability studies research, policy, and practice, are articulated in the Sendai Framework: universal design, inclusion, and accessibility. These concepts have applicable value to the disaster risk reduction community.

Universal design

The first of these, universal design, is directly referenced in Paragraph 30(c) of the SFDRR, which urges “building better from the start to withstand hazards through proper design and construction, including the use of the principles of universal design.” The concept of universal design was first introduced by the late Ronald L. Mace (a wheelchair user himself) and colleagues in 1991 to refer to architectural design that did not need to be modified to accommodate disability as it was already designed for a broad range of users. An example of universal design is curb cuts, which not only allow people using wheelchairs to cross streets, but also serve people on bicycles, children in strollers, and those for whom taking a step down is challenging. With the aging of the U.S. population, architectural design for aging-in-place is seen increasingly in newly built homes. Features of the homes include walk-in showers, lowered light switches, and handles, rather than knobs, on doors. In educational settings universal design principles can also be applied. They may include using multiple modes of instructional delivery, such as multimedia, team-based learning, or field work, in addition to traditional lecture and reading activities to accommodate learners with diverse abilities. The focus of universal design is not to modify pre-existing buildings or curricula, rather to construct them in the first place for people with a diverse range of physical, sensory, and cognitive abilities.

Deaf section for Hurricane Katrina evacuees at the Houston Astrodome. © Texas, September 2005, FEMA photo/Andrea Booher - Location: Houston, Texas

A secondary outcome of universal design is that people with a wide spectrum of abilities and characteristics, not only users with disabilities, will also find benefits from universally designed buildings. For example, levered door handles in universal-design housing are easier for children and people with arthritis to open. Also, homes designed with level flooring enable family members to more easily move furniture from room to room. Federal law supports the use of universal design: The U.S. Americans Disability Act of 1990 sets standards for accessible design. Specifically, Title III of the ADA requires that reasonable modifications be made for people with disabilities to enjoy full and equal access to public buildings and services funded in whole or part by the U.S. government.

Universal design contributes to disaster-risk reduction in two different ways. First, when infrastructure is rebuilt, universal design can be used as a principle to “build back better” so that the built environment does not place people with disabilities differentially at risk in future disaster situations. “Building back better” refers to building structures that can withstand hazard impact, and that are placed in locations less exposed to potential hazards. Homes and offices can be designed so that people with disabilities who live and work in them can either safely shelter-in-place or evacuate from them quickly. Persons with disabilities are often under-employed and have fewer material resources, and thus often share risk factors associated with people living in poverty. The United Nations (UNISDR 2015a, p. 1) points out that, similar to other populations vulnerable to disaster, people with disabilities are disproportionately affected “due to a range of factors including exclusion from decision-making processes, often poor living conditions, inadequate infrastructure, income inequality or undiversified sources of income, and limited access to basic services, especially education and information.”

Second, universal design of buildings clearly facilitates evacuation of buildings for people with disabilities, providing better egress for people with mobility impairments and improved emergency signage for people who are blind. However, universal design principles can serve other populations at-risk in disaster as well. For example, visual alerting systems designed for the Deaf can also serve seniors who have partial hearing loss, ad signage for individuals with intellectual disabilities proves useful for those who cannot read English. Some aspects of universal design may provide overall better risk reduction for the population as a whole. For instance, doorframes wide enough to accommodate wheelchairs will also facilitate overall quick evacuations, as will entryways that use ramps in lieu of stairs.

FEMA employee Vince Prevot demonstrates the features of the new trailers being assigned to disabled evacuees impacted by Hurricane Katrina. The trailers are ADA compliant and feature electric heat, a shower with a built-in seat an other elements designed to make life easier for those confined to chairs. © August 19, 2006 Keith Riggs/FEMA, Location: Baton Rouge, Louisiana

Using the principles of universal design serves not only to reduce future risk, but also creates additional housing stock needed to accommodate people with disabilities. Universal-design housing provides infrastructure that persons with disabilities may require to live independently within their homes—such as grab bars, alerting systems, lowered light switches, and adapted bathrooms. In addition, disasters cause new incidences of disability. Falling masonry can cause broken bones or “crush syndrome,” which can lead to mobility impairments or traumatic brain injury. These individuals, too, will need housing that accommodates their disabilities post-disaster. More broadly, when universal design is incorporated into neighborhood and urban redesign, people with disabilities and their families can return to these areas sooner following an disaster.


The second construct referred to in the Sendai Framework which also has deep roots in disability history is that of inclusion. While the term has a more general connotation, within the disability community inclusion has as its aim for people with disabilities to participate in settings and activities as much as people without disabilities. Within the Sendai Agreement, the term inclusion is used with a similar connotation—that disaster risk reduction should consider all segments of the population in planning and response. The SFDRR, in addition to in Paragraph 7, directly refers to inclusion and individuals with disabilities under Paragraph 19(d), stating disaster-risk reduction “…requires empowerment and inclusive, accessible and non-discriminatory participation, paying special attention to people disproportionately affected by disasters…” It adds, “A gender, age, disability and cultural perspective in all policies and practices; and the promotion of women and youth leadership.”

The inclusion movement gained momentum in the United States after the passage of Public Law 94-142: The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act in 1975. Children across the country historically had been sent to segregated schools and classrooms based on their disability rather than on their educational needs. The inclusion movement’s central premise was that all students had the right to receive educational services, to the extent possible, alongside of their peers, as well as access to the same curriculum. It thus became the obligation of school districts to figure out how students with disabilities could be educated in the “least restrictive environment.” In other words, it was no longer acceptable to bus children across cities to attend school in segregated educational settings or to group all children with disabilities at a school into one classroom, or to spend all day long separated from their same-aged peers. Other disability laws were passed, including the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which also included elements of the concept of inclusion. Within the SFDRR the concept of inclusion is used to recognize potential contributions of traditionally marginalized populations, including people with disabilities. When applied to DRR, the concept of inclusion focuses attention and practice on assimilating the needs of other populations vulnerable to disaster. An inclusive approach entails a whole-of-society approach in which the DRR needs of women, children, seniors, immigrants, low income, and people with health impairments are included in planning and mitigation. The approach also mandates that the rights of people to these services should not be compromised given their status as a marginalized group. In several locations, the SFDRR suggests that the needs of marginalized populations, including people with disabilities, be assimilated into emergency planning and practices. Section V of the Sendai Framework focuses on the role of stakeholders. Paragraph 36(a) states the following: “Persons with disabilities and their organizations are critical in the assessment of disaster risk and in designing and implementing plans tailored to specific requirements, taking into consideration, inter alia, the principles of universal design” (United Nations, 2015b). It is also an acknowledgement of persons with disabilities as not only beneficiaries of DRR, but critical participants in the design and implementation of DRR.


The third disability-related construct emerging from the Sendai Framework is that of accessibility. Again, in Paragraph 7, the SFDRR specifically states that “Disaster risk reduction practices need to be multi-hazard and multisectoral based, inclusive and accessible in order to be efficient and effective” United Nations, 2015b). One typically thinks of disability-related accessibility in terms of structural egress—also a major consideration in structural universal design. However, more comprehensively, accessibility refers to entrée to the same services, facilities, information, tools, and activities as are available to people without disabilities. The Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act of 2006 specifically references physical and communicational accessibility requirements for persons with disabilities. During disaster recovery, this includes access to basic requirements, such as food, water, shelter, and transportation. However, accessibility also may entail modifications to services, procedures, or communicational methods.

Mary Sinclair, a Community Relations field worker, discusses special needs assistance with Delores Smith, who is blind, and her daughter Cheryl, as Teisha Jeter, her Community Relations partner, looks on. Community Relations field workers help special needs survivors find the help they may be eligible for. © June 18, 2011 Ed Edahl/FEMA. - Location: Chattanooga, Tenessee.

Examples of such modifications include the following: warning systems that alert people with hearing impairments at the same time as those with no hearing loss; television notices that provide people who are blind verbal, rather than simply pictorial, updates on weather information; and materials easily read or symbols easily understood by people with cognitive disabilities. When the U.S. Congress amended the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 federal agencies were subsequently required to make their electronic and information technology content accessible to people with disabilities. Providing information through media that is more comprehensible to everyone can lead to protective actions being taken more quickly by a broader range of the population. The disability field has developed a range of alternative communicational devices and assistive technology to accommodate individuals with sensory impairments and intellectual disabilities. These include signage, communication boards, and alternatives to print. Such communicational alternatives can be considered for use with other groups vulnerable to disaster.

Although not used directly in conjunction with disability, the SFDRR in Paragraph 36(d) states that risk, hazard and disaster information should be disseminated “…in a simple, transparent, easy-to-understand and accessible manner.” Accessible means not only making information available, but also understandable. During the stages of sheltering and recovery, accessibility can include equal access to information about disaster-related services, access to restrooms and shelters, or simply the right to shelter with one’s family instead of being segregated into a separate facility. Accessibility to services and supports that facilitate independence are also important. For example, accessibility to information about the ongoing disaster can allow people with disabilities to plan and decide their own efforts toward recovery, rather than waiting for others to communicate with them or to direct their actions. As such, accessibility is a multifaceted concept that can cover a range of resources and services delivered throughout the disaster cycles of preparedness, response, recovery, and mitigation.

SENDAI Agreement

The Third United Nations World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in March of 2015 in Sendai, Japan brought welcome attention to the needs of people with disabilities. The conference itself featured inclusive and accessible elements; closed captioning in both English and Japanese was provided at the main venues, sign language interpretation was provided on demand, papers and presentation materials were available in accessible formats, as well as thirty-four events which addressed issues of disability (UNISDR, 2015). Of most consequence, however, was that over 200 persons with disabilities actively participated in the WCDRR as either delegates, speakers, panelists, or contributors. (UNISDR, 2015). Events at the conference included sessions in which people with disabilities presented their own disaster risk reduction expertise, speaking at public forums, and participating in working sessions. The intention of the conference organizers was clear—people with disabilities were welcomed not only as attendees but acknowledged as participants and stakeholders in the development of new policies in disaster risk reduction.

The concepts of universal design, inclusivity, and accessibility have been part of the discourse of disability scholars, civil rights advocates, and members of the disability community for over 50 years. The Disability Rights Movement followed on the heels of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, and, as discussed above, came into fruition through legislation passed beginning in the 1960s and 1970s. Why, then, have the experiences of persons with disabilities only recently emerged as a concern within the field of disaster risk reduction? In fact, Disability Studies scholars have made this observation previously about many other fields- the experiences of linguistic, cultural, ethnic, and racial minorities are much more likely to receive attention than are those of persons with disabilities. Quite simply, discrimination, stigma, and marginalization towards persons with disabilities is powerful and pervasive across cultures, across nations, and, literally, across millennia. In addition, many persons with disabilities are segregated and thus “unseen” by society; for example, approximately 223,300 persons with disabilities in the U.S. are currently segregated from the rest of society into nursing homes, group home, and large-scale institutions (Lakin, Larson, Salmi, & Webster, 2010; She & Stapleton, 2006). Some theorists (e.g. Davis, 2006) point out that not only are persons with disabilities marginalized, so is the study of disability. As a result, it is of little surprise to disability scholars that policy makers in disaster risk reduction are only now turning their attention to the experiences of person with disabilities. The emergence of disability-related concepts as part of the Sendai Framework thus represents not only a theoretical contribution from Disability Studies to the field of disaster-risk reduction, it is an acknowledgment by the world community that persons with disabilities are worthy of consideration in disaster situations.


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  1. FEMA uses the terminology “people with disabilities and/or others who have access and functional needs,” however, the Sendai Framework uses the phrase “persons with disabilities.” 

  2. Prior to the SFDRR, the Hyogo Framework for Action was adopted in 2005 and the Yokohama Strategy and Plan of Action in 1994. 

  3. We present a more extensive discussion of disability-related content in the SFDRR in our 2015 article entitled “The Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction and persons with disabilities.” 

  4. Disability Studies, as an academic discipline, explores how social, political, cultural, and economic factors affect disability. Disability Studies research is typically interdisciplinary, using multiple theories to understand the disability experience, and conducted at the intersection of overlapping disciplines in the sciences, social sciences, and humanities. Scholarship in the field challenges the assumption that the social status of people with disabilities is an inevitable outcome of their condition. 

  5. Vulnerability is defined in the Hyogo Framework for Action as: “The conditions determined by physical, social, economic and environmental factors or processes, which increase the susceptibility of a community to the impact of hazards.”