Including “the largest minority” in humanitarian action

Sophie Van Eetvelt
Dec 3 · 5 min read
Two woman speaking to a man through a window.
Two woman speaking to a man through a window.
In Leogane, Haiti, two volunteers speaking with a man as part of a project on accountability to communities affected by crisis. Photo Credit: Haitian National Red Cross Society

The fundamental humanitarian principles of humanity and impartiality require that humanitarian actors include all people affected by crisis in their response activities. Yet we know that some people are systematically excluded. This includes people with disabilities.

‘People with disabilities’ includes persons who have long-term sensory, physical, psychosocial, intellectual or other impairments that, in interaction with various barriers, prevent them from participating in, or having access to, humanitarian programmes, services or protection.

Although data on disability is not comprehensive, global estimates suggest 15% of people in a given population will have a disability or disabilities. In humanitarian settings, this proportion can be substantially higher. Indications from data collected using the Washington Group Questions in Syria, for example, show that up to 26% of the population has a disability.

In this respect, people with disabilities can be considered as the largest minority in a humanitarian response. Recognising and responding to this is vital to deliver an effective and impartial response. For example, research in Uganda has shown that refugee households with a person with a very severe disability were 3 times more likely to be food insecure than a household with no persons with disabilities.

Inclusion: a human rights issue

Inclusion has become somewhat of a buzzword in the humanitarian community. There’s a good reason it should be talked about so often, but as with most buzzwords, the meaning and substance can become diluted as a result. So, what do we mean by disability inclusion?

The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) was adopted in 2006. It signified a move away from the traditional approach to disability — one of medical intervention and charitable support — to recognising the intrinsic human rights of individual people. This is known as a right-based approach.

Article 11 of CRPD is most relevant for the humanitarian community, stating that:

“States and other relevant humanitarian actors are obliged to ensure the protection and safety of persons with disabilities in all situations of risk, including armed conflict, humanitarian emergencies and natural disasters”.

More recently, the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) published guidelines on the inclusion of persons with disabilities. The guidelines promote a rights-based approach and work towards four key objectives:

1. To provide practical guidance on including persons with disabilities in humanitarian programming and coordination;

2. To increase capacity amongst humanitarian stakeholders to develop and implement quality programmes that are inclusive of persons with disabilities;

3. To describe the roles and responsibilities of humanitarian stakeholders to include persons with disabilities in humanitarian action;

4. To increase and improve the participation of persons with disabilities and organizations of persons with disabilities (OPDs) in preparedness, response and recovery.

“When you’ve met one disabled person… you’ve met one disabled person” — 1800 seconds BBC podcast

Being inclusive is not about a one-size fits all approach, because people with disabilities are not a separate and homogenous group. For example, women with disabilities may face different barriers to children with disabilities. A person with a disability may also be part of an ethnic-minority group, live in a female-headed household or have caring responsibilities. And we know that 46% of older people also have a disability.

Woman cooking on a traditional stove
Woman cooking on a traditional stove
Daw in Myanmar has visual and hearing impairments. Photo Credit: U Myo Thame/HelpAge International

Furthermore, disability comprises a diverse range of impairments; including physical, sensory, psychosocial and intellectual impairments. Our own research earlier this year found that there was a near-total lack of consideration for people with communication-related disabilities in humanitarian WASH and gender-based violence programming, whereas there were more examples of programmes addressing the physical barriers to inclusion.

This intersectionality is central to being truly inclusive; without listening to the perspectives and recognising the capacity of diverse individuals, humanitarian response will continue to exclude people. The phrase ‘nothing about us, without us’ stems from this need, and is highlighted in the IASC objective to increase participation.

An opportunity for innovation

At Elrha, we believe humanitarian innovation has much to contribute to generating a more effective and inclusive humanitarian response.

This year, we launched our first Innovation Challenges addressing the inclusion of people with disabilities and older people in humanitarian response. We’ve started at the Problem Recognition stage of the innovation journey. For innovation to be successful, we know that starting with a robust problem definition is vital. So, we want to build a contextualised and nuanced understanding of the barriers to inclusion before starting to support and fund new solutions.

We’ve also commissioned a Gap Analysis to better understand the inclusion of people with disabilities and older people in humanitarian response. Led by the Nossal Institute at the University of Melbourne, the Gap Analysis will systematically review the existing evidence base on inclusion and identify priorities and opportunities for innovation.

Momentum around inclusion is building within the humanitarian and innovation communities. The fantastic response to our Innovation Challenges, with over 130 applications from 41 countries, is testament to this. Watch this space to learn more about our first innovation projects that are focusing on inclusion, and what more we’ve got planned to prioritise inclusion in humanitarian response.

You can take action.

Leadership from, or partnership with, Organisations for Persons with Disabilities (OPDs) was a core criterion for our Innovation Challenges. Half of the applications we received were from national or local Civil Society Organisations (CSOs). OPDs can be at the forefront of inclusive action during a humanitarian crisis. Humanitarian actors have much to learn from OPDs and other localised CSOs. The International Disability Alliance (IDA) represents global and regional disability networks, and is a good starting point to find information about such organisations that are actively present in different contexts.

The publication of the IASC guidelines was a key milestone for the humanitarian inclusion agenda, with the ambitious aim to enable the ‘full and effective participation and inclusion of persons with disabilities and changing practice across all sectors and in all phases of humanitarian action.’ Realising this aim will require every one of us to play our part. Today, on the International Day for Persons with Disabilities, familiarise yourself with the IASC Guidelines and the Humanitarian Inclusion Standards, and make sure colleagues are aware of them too.

We’re excited to see progress on the inclusion of people with disabilities in humanitarian response, and most importantly, be a part of it. Because all members of the humanitarian community must share the responsibility to ensure a truly inclusive humanitarian response.

Written by Sophie Van Eetvelt and Claudia Winn from Elrha.


We are Elrha. A global charity that finds solutions to complex humanitarian problems through research and innovation.

Sophie Van Eetvelt

Written by

Supporting innovation in humanitarian response @ Elrha. Find me cycling around London & eating peanut butter.



We are Elrha. A global charity that finds solutions to complex humanitarian problems through research and innovation.

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