Tag Archives: accessibility

Dhaka, disability and disaster risk reduction

As I sit here amidst the honking of horns of the Dhaka rush hour, I take the chance to reflect on some of what I’ve seen over the last few days…

Sandwiched between the Himalayas and the Bay of Bengal, Bangladesh is a disaster-prone land. Glacial and rain-induced flooding, cyclones and earthquakes are some of the hazards that it’s exposed to, so maybe it’s no surprise that the country is taking a leading role on the global disaster risk reduction stage. Specifically, the Dhaka Declaration, adopted last week at the Dhaka Conference on Disability and Disaster, is a two-year plan with strategic action points that will help shape governments’ Disaster Risk Management (DRM) policy in line with the Sendai Framework.

But enough jargon – what does all this mean in practice?

After the conference, I had the good fortune to escape the motorised jam of the capital city and visit some project work being done by our partner Centre for Disability in Development with Gana Unnayan Kendra in Gaibandha, in the north of the country.

yellow fields

Mustard fields in winter (dry season)

Deceptively tranquil, with fields of bright yellow mustard and rice paddies at all stages of growth (apparently the fertile ground can provide up to four harvests per year), this region is often affected by severe flooding. To avoid significant loss of their harvests, livestock and indeed their own lives, the local people need to be prepared.

The measures that are being taken are impressive, providing a seamless framework that starts at the local communities and links with government bodies. They reflect the ‘people-centred’ approach called for by Sendai, but also, in line with the Dhaka Declaration, they revolve around the inclusion of persons with disabilities in leadership roles, and have had some stunning results so far.

From exclusion to respect

The highlight for me was probably meeting what is known as the ‘Apex’ body, a group of disability leaders from local self-help groups who come together (I think they said bi-weekly) to plan their advocacy towards inclusion.

Led by Kazol Rekha, some of their greatest successes to date include:

  • increasing access to disability allowance by influencing the ‘open budget’ procedure (this action also allowed other more marginalised people to participate, proof if it is needed of the value of disability inclusion to the wider community)
  • creating an increase in the provision of assistive devices (including mobility tricycles and white canes)
  • and, on a practical level, having the local social services office moved from the (inaccessible) second floor to the ground floor
A young woman wearing traditional Bengali dress

Shirin – “I work to make sure other children do not miss their schooling as I did”

Shirin, one of the many female members of the group, has a learning disability and had very limited opportunity to attend school, but captured the mood of the moment perfectly:

“I was excluded, people did not give me respect; but now they are curious and want to know where I’m going and what I’m doing. I work to make sure other children do not miss their schooling as I did”.

Badsha Mia, another member of the group said “​I cannot imagine the changes over last two months: trainings, meetings… when people stop to talk they talk with us first; previously I felt limited as someone with a disability, but now no longer.”

So how does this link to DRR for all?

People, including a wheelchair user, seated cross-legged in a group in a public event

Kazol Rekha (in red) leading disaster management discussions during mock drill event. Kazol is also receiving training, to allow her to support people to learn their legal rights.

These people are not only personally empowered, but are positively affecting their community approach to resilience. We met the sub-district executive officer, who – with sincerity and a real understanding of inclusion – opined that “good human society brings marginalised people into the mainstream”, while highlighting the need for data on disability and access in infrastructure.

We attended a ‘mock drill’ organised by a school. This theatrical event drew hundreds of local people and depicted the process of community preparedness and response to flooding.

Early warning messages were given in various formats (ensuring they can be seen, heard, understood by all) and similarly, persons with disabilities, women and older people – often forgotten – were active throughout the decision-making and evacuation procedures.

It was impressive to see, and what sticks in the mind is that children (including children with disabilities) were centre-stage, providing invaluable foundations for future resilience.

The ‘last mile’

A man holding a red flag

A Ward Disaster Management Committee member explains their accessible early warning system

Back to real life, we met with the Union (Council) and Ward (more local level) Disaster Management Committees. These meetings were brief but powerful. The Apex body of persons with disabilities have representation with strong influence here, showing how the last mile between government and community can be covered.

This ‘last mile’ concept is easily exemplified by the community planning and preparing their own (accessible) early warning system, which includes coloured flags and audible messages.

And it was clear to us that the other committee members appreciate the value of inclusion – the secretary of the Union committee chairperson closed by saying that she is “waiting for the day when someone like Kazol is in her position“.

The way forward from Sendai

Schoolchildren (including wheelchair user)

Children learning about inclusive DRR during mock drill

There was much more, including visits to examples of income generating activities and accessible flood-prone housing, but the final message that is worth sharing, which was echoed by several of the groups we met, is that they know their work is changing their world but they want it to change THE world.

Following their example and implementing the Sendai Framework using government-endorsed papers like the Dhaka Declaration will do just this.


Dhaka Declaration – Disability-inclusive Sendai implementation


Awareness comes first and it is not about the fridge

Global Accessibility Awareness Day

Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD) is celebrated this year on May 21. It was launched in 2012 by Joe Devon, a Los Angeles-based web developer, and Jennison Asuncion, an accessibility professional from Toronto. It started with a single blog post and rapidly became a worldwide event, attracting people who have an interest in raising awareness about digital accessibility and inclusion.

‘Relatively, there isn’t a lot of great information about accessibility out there’ said Joe Devon in his call to the community of web developers to make web sites accessible. His observation on the need for accessible digital environments mirrored the thoughts I had during the course of my own accessibility-related work with CBM in areas of transportation and the built environment: ‘the amount of readily available information is relatively poor when it comes to implementing universal design principles, particularly in low-income countries’.

My experience in Haiti

When reflecting on Global Accessibility Awareness Day in practice, I can’t help but recall a fridge in Haiti. In 2012, I attended an exhibition where architects from different countries displayed model houses that could be the basis for large-scale reconstruction. My objective was to see if accessibility had been taken into account in the designs.

Unsurprisingly, none of the houses were accessible except for one, which featured a ramp to the kitchen. I complimented the designers for considering persons with low mobility but asked why the kitchen would be the primary access for a person in a wheelchair.

“No, no,’ they replied, ‘the ramp is for the fridge, not for persons with disabilities.’

Everybody in the accessibility community has a similar anecdote to share. Aside from the laughs they might generate, stories like my fridge remind us of the obstacles that keep environments inaccessible to persons with disabilities. It also reminds us of the continuous advocacy work that needs to be done on a constant basis to make sure that accessibility does not slide off the agenda.

Why is accessibility an important issue?

Accessibility should never be a secondary priority or a convenient benefit. Accessibility should be seen as something that affects everyone, in every profession, and recruiting these people into the accessibility community through their vested interest would benefit the accessibility community with their passionate perspectives and innovative ideas because accessibility is innovative by definition.

Accessibility looks at creative solutions that answer the question of diversity in human nature. Neil Marcus defined that “Disability is not a brave struggle or ‘courage in the face of adversity.’ Disability is an art. It’s an ingenious way to live.” By designing for this diversity and this ingenuity, we can create things that are more functional and more user-friendly for everyone.

Philippines typhoon (2013 Nov) - 2014_04 - HIS Cheryll

A family poses outside their shelter in the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan

Link between accessibility and universal design

Accessibility is the essence of Universal Design: designing products and spaces so that they can be used by the widest range of people possible. We could play with words and argue between experts as to why and how accessibility is different from universal design. Semantically, accessibility refers to standards while universal design is a philosophy of design, but in the end, both aim to include everyone’s abilities and needs and bring back the users into the heart of the design.

Universal design is a process rather than a goal. The success of implementation will largely depend on user participation and the availability of technical support, which is the sum of capacity building, development of tools and methodology, gathering evidence (best practices) and knowledge sharing.

On that same analogy, accessibility is more than just a collection of norms. Norms and standards are important but do not guarantee successful implementation of accessibility in the field. To be successful, accessibility must engage with women, men, girls and boys with disabilities from the design phase to the end. It sounds obvious but too often, they have a limited voice in the design process.

What happens during emergencies?

The recent earthquake in Nepal reminded me of the importance of universal design as well as the right to safe egress. Egressibility means that, in case of an emergency, occupants have the ability to leave a building or safely reach an area of safety. Persons with disabilities face extra challenges to evacuate, which was highlighted at the April 2015 Fire Safety for All’ Conference. This conference essentially reviewed worldwide fire safety practices and identified an urgent need to revise fire safety practices for persons with disability. The Dublin Declaration on ‘Fire Safety for All’ in Buildings was a product of this conference, highlighting that accessibility design criteria must be incorporated into all of the practical, day-to-day work of building designers and especially in the development of project-specific fire engineering design objectives.

Designing for all does not always involve complex manuals or extreme technologies. During our last Community Based Rehabilitation / Disability Inclusive Development meeting in Bangkok, a Disabled-Persons Group of people with learning disabilities (Change) demonstrated how to communicate emergency and evacuation procedures in a few words and pictures. They showed us how accessible information communicates the message to everyone, whether you have learning difficulties or speak a completely different language.

Once accessibility becomes part of your environmental awareness, it becomes obvious and natural to design for everyone. Accessibility is not a favour to a target group. It should remain one of the core values of the architect, the designer, and the developer who offer services and products to the general population. In the absence of appropriate or any legislative and regulatory frameworks in certain countries, advocacy and information sharing become key tools at international and local levels to encourage changes in perceptions and priorities. These tools can be used to convince government authorities and international agencies to place disability on the international agenda and in the budgets of humanitarian assistance.

A new standard for accessibility has been set

Officially the World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction (WCDRR) is over! Persons with disabilities were incredibly visible and active at this conference setting a precedent for future UN conferences. In total, 6500 participants attended the conference with hundreds of persons with disabilities and partners. Continue below for a summary of disability-related events and details from March 16-18.

ON 16 March Senator Monthian Buntan of Thailand and CRPD Committee Member presented the disability stakeholder group statement. You can read the disability stakeholders’ statement here (scroll down to 16 March, 3pm) and watch it here. Following this, Senator Buntan and Valerie Scherrer gave a joint press conference to the Japanese media with the Minster of State of the cabinet office of Japan. Please click here for details.

On 17 March many disability-focused events and sessions took place. First, there was disability participation in the High-Level Partnership Dialogue on “Inclusive Disaster Risk Management: Governments, Communities And Groups Acting Together.” Carlos Kaiser from ONG Inclusiva from Chile was a panellist with hundreds in the audience. Throughout the session, persons with disabilities were repeatedly highlighted indicating the strong visibility of persons with disabilities at the conference. Mr. Anthony Lake, Executive Director of UNICEF mentioned persons with disabilities in his presentation, as well as Hon. Mr. Nicola Valluzzi, President of the Province of Potenza, Italy.

Shortly afterward, Maryanne Diamond, Chair of The International Disability Alliance (IDA) presented on the IGNITE Stage on the inclusion of persons with disabilities in the post-2015 framework for DRR. Ms. Diamond presented on the importance of synergizing the DRR and post-2015 development frameworks. Click here to watch Ms. Diamond’s presentation.

At a venue outside the Sendai International Centre, the Disability-Inclusive DRR Network (DiDRRN) hosted a side event focusing on DiDRR especially in areas and challenges in rural contexts and for women and girls with disabilities. This too was well attended with excellent global representation.

Also on 17 March, the Global Alliance on Accessible Technologies and Environments (GAATES) organised event over Universal Design and Inclusive Disaster Risk Reduction featuring collaboration with CBM on accessibility. Specifically, CBM has worked on accessibility in Haiti since 2010, first on promoting and ensuring accessibility in camps and mainstreaming universal design in the reconstruction, awareness-raising, training and technical expertise delivery.

Alt="An inclusive conference with sign language interpretation"

An inclusive conference with sign language interpretation

In the afternoon, there was a working session specifically focusing on the proactive participation of persons with disabilities in inclusive disaster risk reduction for all. This was very well attended with many positive comments from the floor. Click here to read more about the session. Closing the session the Latvian Vice-minister of Foreign Affairs announced that all EU States agree to DiDRR commitments.

On 18 March, an event organized by Overseas Development Institute took place at the IGNITE Stage focusing on the integration of gender, age, disability, and cultural perspectives in the post-2015 framework for DRR. The aim was to highlight the importance of the integration of gender, age, disability and cultural perspectives in DRR. Click here to watch this presentation.

Outcome Document Adopted

After many delays Member States adopted the outcome document at midnight, officially called the “Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030” (SFDRR). Persons with disabilities are well represented in the document, including disaggregated data by disability. Importantly, this document can be a model for the post-2015 development process in terms of the inclusion of persons with disabilities. Click here for details.

Margareta Wahlström, the United Nations Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction, gave an excellent final speech at the closing of the conference. In her speech she emphasized how persons with disabilities have been visible and actively engaged in the conference, which was followed by a strong round of applause by the audience (28-minute mark). She continued by indicating that the WCDRR was one of, if not the most accessible UN conference ever held (29-minute mark). Powerfully, she stated that now a new standard for accessibility has been set (29-minute mark) also followed by strong applause. Click here to watch the incredible speech.

While there is no specific link to the post-2015 development agenda or climate change in the outcome document, the importance of this connection was emphasized in Margareta Wahlström’s closing speech in which she described reducing risk as “the bridge” between climate change and sustainable development.

Alt="Valerie Scherrer, Gordon Rattray, Benjamin Dard, Luke Purcell, and me"

Valerie Scherrer, Gordon Rattray, Benjamin Dard, Luke Purcell, and me

Final key points and quotes from the conference

  • On 14 March the Japanese Prime Minister, Mr. Shinzo Abe pledged $US 4 billion to support the implementation of the “Sendai Cooperation Initiative for Disaster Risk Reduction” over the next four years.
  • This conference has been such a success for persons with disabilities. We have participation of persons with disabilities similar to a Conference of States Parties to the CRPD, but it’s a mainstreamed conference. – Vladimir Cuk, IDA
  • On the adoption of disaggregation of data by disability in the post-2015 DRR framework at WCDRR: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for our community.”- Ádám Kósa, the first signing Deaf EU Parliamentarian (Hungary)
  • We are here to make sure no one is left behind. –Carlos Kaiser, ONG Inclusiva, Chile
  • My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together. –Setareki Macanawai (Pacific Disability Forum) quoting Desmond Tutu
  • People with multiple disabilities also have the right to live. –Sonia Margarita Villacres, World Federation of the Deaf Blind, Ecuador
  • My passion is change, because change is the only sustainable thing in the world. –Muhammad Atif Shetkh, South Asian Disability Forum, Pakistan

Additional Information

Post-2015 Disaster Risk Reduction framework is disability-inclusive

UNISDR article on Inclusion builds Resilience

Sendai UN World Conference hailed for accessibility

Margareta’s link to the SDGs



Walking the talk on accessibility

It has been already three days since the world conference on DRR has started. It is such a chance to be part of this event together with my CBM colleagues. I am really glad that key messages on disability inclusion have been very well heard and received. The work that has been done on advocacy around disability inclusion is fantastic and I feel very privileged to be here with CBM and see the significant steps are currently being taken by governments towards greater inclusion of persons with disabilities into disaster risk management.

I have to say: CBM’s team and the Disability caucus group are doing an amazing job in promoting inclusion of persons with disabilities and universal design principles. Since my field of expertise focuses on accessibility to digital and built environments, I did my best to support them by raising the importance of universal design in different working sessions and public events. I had the opportunity to meet with important international agencies working on urban resilience and private companies such as Google involved in the field of information technology.

Today, CBM and the Global Alliance on Accessible Technologies and Environments (GAATES) are presenting best practices on universal design and inclusive disaster risk reduction. Accessibility is an important contribution to safety in the event of disasters and emergencies, such as a fire in a confined area. Not only do barrier-free environments promote access to public buildings and information, but it also lowers everyone’s risk in the event of a disaster (for example, making early warning systems accessible to persons with hearing impairments, creating wide escape routes, covering open manholes, and removing tripping hazards on roads and footpaths; posting written and pictorial routes to assembly points).


Alt="Valerie Scherrer, Gordon Rattray, Benjamin Dard, Luke Purcell, and me"

From left to right: Valerie Scherrer, me, Luke Purcell, Elizabeth Lockwood. Centre- Gordon Rattray

CBM did not only introduce key messages on disability inclusion and universal design but also shared key publications to support implementation. For instance, the recent publication made by IFRC in partnership with Handicap International and CBM and entitled ‘All under one Roof’ provides important guidelines for disability-inclusive shelter and settlements in emergencies.

Another recent CBM publication provides 16 minimum requirements for building accessible shelters. These tools are important and indispensable to help other organisations to include disability and accessibility in their disaster response programs.

In two days it will be time to leave Sendai. This conference will remain an important milestone and represent a significant step towards inclusion of persons with disabilities in disaster risk reduction process. What has been achieved in Sendai will serve our work for the next coming years. Now we all look forward translating the post-2015 framework into practice! Let’s walk the talk!

Watch this short video where I speak about universal design and accessibility.