Displaced, Disabled, and in Need of our Care

07/03/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Out of sight, out of mind. There is no better way to characterize the plight of the hundreds of thousands of refugees worldwide - most of them women, children, and the elderly - whose suffering is compounded by physical, sensory, or mental disabilities. There are few groups more neglected and marginalized.

We know from witnessing many examples of remarkable people who have overcome the barriers surrounding disabilities that they, too, possess skills, knowledge, and experience that can help them remake their lives and rebuild their communities. Yet for much of the world, displaced people who are disabled simply do not exist. Because their situation is widely viewed as peripheral to that of the overall refugee population, they rarely figure in tallies of the displaced. And there is usually little or no provision for them in mainstream assistance programs, let alone services tailored to their specific needs. Leaders of such programs should provide services and end this squandering of human potential.

My interest in this issue has personal roots. My sister Rosemary was born with a mental disability and as a family we struggled to care for her. My mother was frustrated because there were no educational programs, extracurricular activities, or sports offered at that time for people with disabilities. Rosemary went everywhere with us. But we had the luxury of being a large, stable family with resources to cope, unlike the vast number of traumatized people with disabilities uprooted from their homes by disaster or war. Fortunately, in this country, we've come a long way. I became aware of the issue through my son William's work on a project he founded, the International Disability Rights Monitor, which coordinates researchers in more than 50 countries who monitor the human-rights status of people with disabilities.

Displaced people with disabilities have long been excluded from official care and assistance not only because of apathy or outright discrimination, but because there is little reliable data on their numbers. But this week, the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children, an affiliate of the International Rescue Committee, a nongovernmental group of which I'm a board member, is releasing a landmark report on the human rights and critical needs of disabled people among the displaced and refugee population.

The report, co-funded by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, is the product of six months of fact-finding in the Middle East, Asia, Africa, and Latin America. It estimates that of the World Health Organization's estimated global population of 600 million disabled people, as many as 3.5 million are displaced.

The Women's Commission report found that displaced people living with disabilities are often so demoralized that they fail to speak out on their needs for services in refugee camps such as food, toilets, healthcare, and shelter.

Researchers for the Women's Commission did find some encouraging developments. In some places, programs designed for landmine survivors, especially children, offer physical rehabilitation and prosthetics. Elsewhere, researchers noted that self-help support groups were springing up. And in some places, education and vocational training are bringing hope. Abdi Salah is living proof.

Salah, a polio victim who fled Somalia's civil war when he was 10, endured life in a series of refugee camps that would have broken the spirit of a less courageous person. Although his right leg had been paralyzed from infancy, he was never examined by camp doctors. He survived by fashioning a pair of makeshift crutches.

Determined to get an education, Salah enrolled himself in a primary school, limping 2 miles twice a day. But he finished school - and in 1999, UN refugee officials helped him begin an odyssey that eventually took him to the United States, where the International Rescue Committee helped him master English and computer skills. He's now 28 and works in Atlanta.

It is too much to hope that many other displaced people living with disabilities could make Salah's journey their own. But it is a story that shows that if we care enough to do enough, anything is possible.

This post originally appeared in The Boston Globe.