Blog: Disability, conflict and displacement

Four years ago, in May 2013, as I prepared to hand in my Master’s thesis on Israeli-Palestinian peace building, a single question from an unexpected source changed my life.

Her name was Donna-Rose Mckay. At the time, I had no idea who she was and what an important role she would play in my life. She was the head of the University of Otago Disability Information and Support Office. I was there to seek support, but I left with much more. A challenge: “Robbie, it’s great you’re studying peace building. But what I want to know, is what happens to people like us during war?”

Her question weighed on me. What did happen to disabled people like us? What happens when you can’t run away? When someone with a weapon makes demands of you, but you can’t see, or hear or maybe you can’t understand? What happens to people like us, when food is scarce? The electricity is cut? When you have minutes to flee, or face death?

It is estimated that fifteen per cent of the global population lives with some form of disability, making it the largest minority in the world (WHO, 2015). Often invisible during times of peace, people with disabilities are also thought to be amongst the most marginalised and neglected during times of armed conflict and displacement (Shivji, 2010). While disability is being recognised in humanitarian response, field reports and within the media, academic attention on the experiences of people with disabilities during conflict and displacement is almost non-existent.

With this in mind, I decided to commit three years of my life to finding out more.

Now it’s June 2017 and I’m writing this blog from the Ecuadorian Amazon. Donna-Rose’s words continue to ring in my ears. What happens to people like us during war? I’m here to ask this same question to those who know the answer. The experts. To those with experience.

Over the past month, I have been interviewing people with disabilities and their families, all affected by the horrors of conflict and violence in Colombia and Venezuela. Their stories are beyond anything you could imagination. Violence. Rape. Murder. Poverty. And then there’s the experience of disability on top of that. Unlike myself, who has chosen to pursue PhD research in this area, their expertise has been forced upon them because of circumstances beyond their control.  Every day they live with the compounding effects of disability, displacement and poverty.

But I don’t want to simply recount the horrors of what it’s like to live with a disability during war. I want to tell you about courage and resilience. The people I’ve met are fighters. They are survivors.

So often we read about the ‘global refugee crisis’. But I can’t help but think we’ve got it all wrong. They are not a ‘crisis’. Not the people I’ve met. I’ve met human beings, who against all odds – disability, conflict and poverty – are still here. And it is these experiences that have given them real and raw insights into life and humanity – the good and the bad.

There is a quote that says, ‘To be called a Refugee is the opposite of an insult; it is a badge of strength, courage and victory.’

I would argue that so too, is this label of ‘disability’.

My time here in Ecuador has taught me that it is those wearing badges of strength, courage and victory, who are the ones we should be welcoming into our countries and communities as heroes. With offers of jobs, homes, safety and security. I am absolutely certain the knowledge and expertise that refugees with disabilities bring to the table should be considered invaluable assets within any community, business or school.

Indeed, it is only when we start to see people for their strengths, rather than their weaknesses or deficits, that we can truly start talking about peace.

Drawing of hands holding coffee beans 

Robbie is currently a PhD Candidate at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand. Her research is looking at inclusive and accessible research methods and the experiences of people with disabilities during conflict and displacement.


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