The 2018 national census shows that there are 1 734 250 persons with disabilities in Malawi, representing about 11.6 percent of the total population aged above five.
As climate change has made disasters more frequent and devastating, persons with disability are among the most vulnerable groups mainly because of the socio-economic and cultural inequalities they already experience.
Persons with disabilities include those with physical disabilities, vision impairments, hard of hearing, speech-related challenges, cognitive disabilities and psychosocial hardships.
These groups are mostly excluded from disaster risk reduction (DRR), early warning systems and evacuation planning.
When a disaster strikes, they face multiple risks and barriers to escape and access safe shelters, healthcare and other services for the displaced.
Although early warning systems are critical in disaster management, persons with disabilities are seldom reached in time by public alerts. Yet reaching more people with early warnings allows them to ultilise pre-disaster time to flee to safe zones or to protect essential assets.
Early warning helps minimise the hazards as people are forewarned of impending risks. Therefore, it is critical to encourage and promote the use of accessible early warning and weather forecast systems.
The failure to include persons with disabilities in efforts to reduce the risks, frequency and severity of disasters has catastrophic consequences.
Due to inaccessible disaster preparedness plans, systemic discrimination and widespread poverty, persons with disabilities are often left behind in relief and response efforts. In most cases, their needs, including assistive devices, are rarely given a priority. Those who lost their cane or wheelchair in the disaster may struggle to recover and forced to be confined at home, isolated or dependent.
Most of the challenges faced by persons with disabilities are human-made and can be addressed without much ado.
Most disaster management processes fall short of disability inclusion. Inclusion of persons with disabilities and their representative organisations of people in disaster response are imperative.
Disability issues such as access to assistive devices, rehabilitation services, accessible shelter and life-sustaining supplies should be entrenched in disaster management.
The full scope of recovery should involve not only physical infrastructure, but also community-based support such as access to rehabilitation services, mental health support, supported decision-making, independent living, and other support activities.
There is growing momentum to address the rights of persons with disabilities in global development frameworks.
Malawi is party to the Sendai Framework for DRR, Sustainable Development Goals and Paris Agreement on Climate Change which make significant references to people with disabilities.
The vulnerable group knows better the challenges they encounter. The capacities of disability organisations should be strengthened in prevention, mitigation and programming of disaster response.
There is also a need to amplify public awareness of the vulnerabilities of persons with disabilities. In most cases, when collecting data during disasters, it is not properly disaggregated by disability, apart from the other elements considered.
It is vital to consider improving accessibility for persons with disabilities. There should be secure shelters which are disability-friendly.
In most cases, audits of evacuation centres are not done to determine whether they are disability-friendly as required by law.
Also critical is to ensure that there is support for persons with disabilities to be resilient to disaster risks.
There is need for more inclusion in the planning, implementing, monitoring and evaluation of disaster interventions that affect persons with disabilities.
Disability, disasters and development are intricately connected. Therefore, ensuring that persons with disabilities enjoy their rights is not doing them a favour, it is their human right! They deserve better.