It is estimated that 15 per cent of the world’s population is disabled in some way and that the vast majority of people with disabilities live in developing countries. For communities, governments and humanitarian organisations, this can present specific challenges in providing accessible services, especially in the area of water, sanitation and hygiene. The scale and range of needs is daunting and largely underreported. Many organisations are now beginning to recognise the need for radical change to bring support to the most vulnerable.

People such as Paulina Samuel, 80, who lives in the Ohangwena region of Namibia, with her sister Olivia and two granddaughters. Olivia is unable to walk any distance and this was recognised by a regional council officer who then worked with the Namibia Red Cross to help build a toilet and handwashing facilities close to her home. Volunteers also provided education and support. While the new facilities were designed to improve Olivia’s life, it has had an impact on the whole family. The two younger children were able to visit a neighbour’s toilet during the day, but at night they would have to use the bush.

“I’m so excited because I now have access to a clean toilet, unlike before when I had to go into a bush,” Pauline said.

IFRC’s Disability Coordinator, Mina Mojtahedi, said stories such as Pauline’s demonstrated that there was at least now recognition that disabled people’s WASH needs were not being met, and that would lead to change.

“The lack of access to water and sanitation services is an important, but often ignored, issue,” she said. “We are committed to doing more in our planning, operations and programme delivery to ensure that we’re breaking down barriers to access and ensure the sanitation needs of all people are met. Our commitment extends to making sure all members of communities are represented in our planning.”

Understand the barriers, then remove them

Mina’s recent missions to Ghana and Greece showed that collaboration with communities and engaging with people with disabilities at every stage of planning, was vital, but that this was not always the first priority. “Communities do recognise challenges, for example, for people with mobility limitations or older people accessing and using latrines, or issues of communication with deaf members. But they are going to need support to improve awareness of the barriers they face and how to remove them,” she said. “The people with disabilities are all too aware of the barriers, and are keen to work with organisations to address them.”

The Ghana Red Cross, Mina said, realised the importance of representation. “We talked about how the Red Cross could partner with local disabled people’s organisations to raise awareness about inclusion.” But, she said, they needed to look beyond the standard idea that disability equals mobility and address subjects including access to information for people who were deaf or blind.

“The solutions to accessible and inclusive WASH are fairly simple. It’s just a matter of designing actions to be inclusive from the beginning – this actually serves the whole community.”


Mina Mojtahedi, IFRC Disability Inclusion coordinator has been on recent missions to Ghana and Greece to meet with people with disabilities and disability organisations and understand how the Movement could improve WASH services.

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Desire for change

What is clear, though, is that disability inclusion has been largely neglected by the humanitarian sector, and this has to change. “Not enough is being done to improve access to good sanitation services,” Mina said. “People with disabilities have a voice, and we need to support their desire for change and amplify their voices to raise the issues that affect their lives and make the whole humanitarian sector understand their rights and their needs.”

Solutions will involve investment, such as making sure programmes have a person attached with knowledge and experience of dealing with the issues all parts of the communities face, and making sure people with disabilities are heard in the planning and delivery of services.

“Having a focal point with technical expertise on inclusion to support accessible programming would make a huge difference.”