Press Conference by Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction

10 October 2013

Press Conference by Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction

10 October 2013
Press Conference
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Press Conference by Special Representative of the


Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction


The crucial needs of about 1 billion people living with physical and mental disabilities around the world must be woven into the disaster planning and emergency response plans of Governments and civil society groups, said the Organization’s senior manager on disaster reduction at a press conference at Headquarters today.

Margareta Wahlström, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction, said “Living with Disability and Disasters” was the theme of the 2013 International Day for Disaster Reduction on 13 October while the needs of disabled people were being given enormous attention in the post-2015 development agenda.

The United Nations aimed to raise understanding and awareness of the plight of disabled people, whom died more frequently when disaster struck, she said.  Emergency response systems and the shelters set up to help these people after a disaster hit a region were usually poorly designed to handle their requirements, said Ms. Wahlström, who heads the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction in Geneva.

[In 2009, the General Assembly set aside 13 October as an observation day to expand awareness of how people can reduce their risk to disaster.  Twenty years before, the Assembly designated the second Wednesday of October as the International Day for Natural Disaster Reduction.  The day’s name was changed to International Day for Disaster Reduction in 2009.]

A recent United Nations global survey, which asked persons living with disabilities how they coped with disasters, indicated that 70 per cent didn’t know how to tap into any existing emergency response system in their communities.  Fifty per cent wanted to be involved in a response system while 25 per cent were not sure.  “We have to understand why people want to be excluded,” said Ms. Wahlström, adding that many disabled people depended on their families and friends for safety during emergencies.

About 5,500 to 6,000 people initially responded to the survey, including many respondents from developed nations like the United States, which had active emergency response systems, she said.  The survey had now been translated into 12 languages and the response time had been extended to year’s end to glean more data from people living in developing countries.  The results were released on 10 October in Geneva.

A risk facing emergency planners was to group all disabled people into one category.  Yet the needs of a person who couldn’t hear were different from a person who was colour-blind.  People with mental disabilities also were coping with many different issues, added Ms. Wahlström, who brings 25 years of national and international experience in disaster management to the position.

Another goal of the commemoration day was to shift the frequently negative attitudes held by the general public about disabled people, she said.  United Nations officials also wanted to involve national and local Governments and civil society groups, with direct knowledge of their communities, in developing emergency response systems that helped their communities’ disabled.

In response to reporters’ questions, Ms. Wahlström said her Office was working with all States, even those which did not sign the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.  She noted that Article 11 in the Convention dealt with disasters.

She said she would be surprised if any States would resist efforts to help disabled persons.  “The only resistance around prevention and risk reduction is that it costs too much money,” she said.  The Office had learned many lessons about preparedness from Hurricane Sandy, which struck New York City and United Nations Headquarters in October 2012.  She said she was confident of the preparedness of the United States Federal Emergency Management Agency.

In response to a question about the needs of disabled people in developing countries, including Pakistan, she said her Office was working on issues in these regions, including prejudice and lack of education around disabled people.  The issue had to be placed in the public domain.  She also cautioned that it was not practical to provide certain services for disabled persons during a disaster that could not generally be provided.

She said the preparedness of local Governments and non-governmental organizations was essential, as was bringing representatives from disabled organizations to the table as emergency plans were developed.  “There is a tendency for Governments to plan for others on the assumption that they understand their needs, instead of bringing them to the table to understand their needs,” she said.

She said that technology, including social media, was an important tool to help the disabled by identifying their locations and how they could be helped during an emergency.

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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.