Haiti — Rebuilding an Accessible Future

Circa 2010

The aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti’s capital city of Port-au-Prince is, in a word, overwhelming. Relief efforts are in overdrive, collecting money, medicine, manpower and machinery. Images of front-end loaders moving bodies, and of cities of tents baking in the sun, will resonate for years to come. But there are survivors. And the question remains, what will happen to them now?

Beneath all the devastation and destruction, there is indeed an opportunity in Haiti. Organizations worldwide are approaching the chaos and its gradual recovery with a unified goal: to give people with disabilities a voice as the city’s infrastructure gets repaired and rebuilt.

“There’s a growing focus on the many survivors who have become amputated due to crush injuries, who have difficulty obtaining medical care and untreated infections,” said Rob Horvath, who has been involved in disability and rehabilitation at USAID for 17 years. “We’re working to deliver crutches and wheelchairs, and to involve groups of orthotists, prosthetists, surgeons, podiatrists and therapists. Efforts are underway to coordinate public and private sector donations. We recognize how important it is that all of the needs of these individuals are addressed.”

Horvath notes that those with newly-acquired disabilities as a result of the earthquake include individuals with spinal cord injuries, traumatic brain injuries, and injures to mental health. The ink is now drying on a formal commitment from Haiti to keep people with disabilities at the forefront of this conversation, as the country was one of 143 signatories to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which was ratified in July.

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Article 11 of the Convention addresses risk and humanitarian emergencies, stating that “parties shall take, in accordance with their obligations under international law, including international humanitarian law and international human rights law, all necessary measures to ensure the protection and safety of persons with disabilities in situations of risk, including situations of armed conflict, humanitarian emergencies and the occurrence of natural disasters.”

Haiti has also made a commitment of respected personnel, having appointed Dr. Michel Pean to the role of Secretary of State for the Integration of the Disabled. Pean has worked for years to educate the Haitian people on equality for people with disabilities.

According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), for every one child killed in a disaster, three acquire a disability. Prior to the earthquake, several local and international organizations had reported approximately 800,000 people with disabilities in Haiti. That number has now substantially grown.

“A number of those people are in serious difficulty, particularly when it comes to assessing the range of assistance available on the ground,” said Wendy Batson, director of the U.S. division of Handicap International (HI). “Working with the other partners that emerge, we’ll be setting up what we call disability and vulnerable focal points, where we’ll already have staffing provided for them.”

These vulnerable focal points will be central locations for aid for people with disabilities. For amputees, the challenge to provide assistance will be great. HI and Christian Blind Mission International (CBM), an international development organization, estimate the number of amputees following the earthquake to be anywhere between 2,000 and 4,000.

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Karen Heinicke-Motsch of CBM said the Haitian people themselves are heavily involved in the rescue and recovery response. Local leaders have met with CBM and its partners for a discussion focused on availability of prosthetics. In an effort to help manage this and other efforts, the World Health Organization has tasked HI and CBM to form subgroups on disabilities that will focus on the coordination of assistance for Haitians who suffer from traumatic injuries which may lead to both short-term and permanent disabilities. Additionally, multiple organizations—including Hanger Orthopedic, Whirlwind Wheelchair, Christopher Reeve Foundation and United Cerebral Palsy Wheels for Humanity—are providing medical equipment and orthopedic devices.

Financial assistance, medical supplies, equipment and even a sense of organization will all help in the efforts to establish a stable Haiti. But the construction of a longterm infrastructure for the nation is, in many ways, one of rescue workers’ top priorities since the earthquake has forced Haiti to start almost entirely from scratch.

“Organizations are assessing the damage, connecting the staff, and trying to salvage equipment,” Heinicke-Motsch said. “The school for the deaf was destroyed, the school for the blind was destroyed and the special education center was destroyed. And a number of other centers have been devastated. There is much work to be done.”

“We should commit to working with Haitian disability leaders and others to keep the focus on the immediate, intermediate and long term needs of Haitians with disabilities and work to facilitate integration, inclusion, selfdetermination and universal design in all physical, programmatic and communications efforts,” Horvath said. “Individuals and others with skills in disaster recovery, universal design, and integrating survivors with disabilities in every aspect are going to be needed.”

by Josh Pate


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