Innovating With and For Persons with Disabilities in Humanitarian Action


Categories: Health, Innovation

From redesigning and improving assistive devices to function in muddy, sandy and uneven terrains, to improving community-supports and access to healthcare providers, Humanitarian Grand Challenge supported innovators are improving access to aid for persons living with disabilities 


More than 1 billion people worldwide are living with disabilities, 16% of which are attributable to armed conflict. As the length, frequency, and scope of the world’s conflicts increase, it is becoming more challenging to reach people living in conflict with the essential aid they need. All people living in conflict and conflict-affected areas face unthinkable challenges in striving to protect themselves and their loved ones, but for people living with disabilities, those challenges can be even more daunting. 

Many come up against additional barriers in seeking protection or accessing services. Whether it’s accessing mental health services for people living with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or having the right mobility devices for the environment you’re living in, Humanitarian Grand Challenge supported innovators are working to improve disability inclusion in humanitarian aid. 


Conflict and Disability

Persons with disabilities are among the most marginalized in any crisis-affected community. Persons with disabilities are over-represented among those living in poverty, while an estimated 6.7 million persons with disabilities are forcibly displaced as the result of persecution, conflict, violence and other human rights violations. Often-times, people living with disabilities fall through the cracks of humanitarian response and face barriers in accessing basic protection and life-saving assistance and their participation in decision-making processes and implementation of solutions that directly affect them is often overlooked. For humanitarian aid to reach all persons affected by conflict, we must move towards inclusive humanitarian response – including innovating for disability inclusion in aid. Persons living with disabilities must be meaningfully consulted and actively involved in the aid process. 

To draw attention to the specific needs and requirements of persons with disabilities exposed to conflicts, we’re highlighting supported solutions being developed, implemented and promoted to meet the needs of persons with disabilities in conflict and increase disability inclusion in humanitarian aid.


3D Printing Lower Body Prosthetics

“In Tanzania, people in need of prosthetic limbs cannot access specialized prosthetics and orthotics services for a number of reasons, including financial, material and human resource shortages,” says Ruth Onesmo, a Tanzanian healthcare provider with Comprehensive Community Based Rehabilitation in Tanzania (CCBRT). “Without the appropriate assistive devices or care, people struggle to complete day-to-day tasks, like traveling, collecting food and water, or earning a living.” While working in the refugee camps, Ruth saw many young children with missing limbs. 

“They couldn’t play the same way with other kids, and it was very expensive for their families to get them the prosthetics they needed.” With Comprehensive Community Based Rehabilitation Tanzania (CCBRT), Ruth and her team work to provide low-cost, locally manufactured prostheses to refugees. “Very few projects make 3D printed prosthetics in or out of refugee camps, and even fewer are making lower-body devices. We’re working to develop the technical capacity of local prosthetics production so that we can meet the needs locally.” As supply chains and access to remote and low-resource settings is disrupted, this local solution is meeting the needs of persons with disabilities in Kigoma, in a fast, cheap and efficient way.


Redesigning Mobility Aids and Assistive Technology for Conflict Affected Populations

Humanitarian crises affect different groups differently, with people living with disabilities being one of the most affected populations. Conflicts can also result in increased disabilities caused by injury from shelling, building collapse, or malnutrition. While 1 in 10 people living with physical disabilities have access to assistive devices, traditional crutches are not well suited to uneven, unpaved grounds often found in conflict or refugee camp settings, and are therefore often abandoned by users. Lack of mobility becomes an increased barrier to their safety and well-being.

SUNY Korea, working with Young Power in Social Action, has been developing and testing 3D-printed customizable ‘shoes’ for crutches and canes to provide mobility assistance in challenging terrains. SUNY Korea’s solution is a simple improvement to a universal assistive technology, the crutch. The crutch shoe will be locally produced using 3D-printed molds to produce customizable shoes, which are compatible with existing crutch frames and can be tailored for local conditions. “Traditional assistive devices are often made to be used on smooth or paved surfaces. But what if that’s not your reality? For many people around the world, their assistive devices need to be usable in muddy, sandy, and uneven surfaces,” says Suzana Brown, Assistant Professor in the Department of Technology and Society at SUNY Korea. 

 Working in Cox’s Bazar refugee camp in Bangladesh, Suzana and the teams at SUNY Korea and Young Power in Social Action are working to improve assistive devices for those in challenging contexts. “Most refugee camps and areas of conflict have non-prepared surfaces, therefore people living with disabilities using devices with our improved design will be able to move around with increased safety and have a significant life improvement.” Using 3D printing, this solution will be produced locally, easily customizable to local conditions. “Better assistive devices will not only increase the mobility of the user, but improve their activity and participation, which can translate to a great impact on their quality of life in an already stressful environment.”


Community-Based Resources to Meet the Mental Health Needs of Children in Syria

A decade into the war in Syria, the psychological impacts and unmet mental health needs continue to burden youth. To leverage community-based resources the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) Foundation is training local women as counsellors to use the Common Elements Treatment Approach (CETA) – an intervention developed by researchers at Johns Hopkins University and the University of Washington – to address common mental health problems. Project staff will then supervise these women as they deliver much-needed mental healthcare to children and adolescents in their communities.

“There is currently a lack of trained mental health professionals working in Northwest Syria. Child-focused care is especially lacking, which is a real concern when combined with the high rates of mental disorder that we’re seeing. Our goal for this project is to provide targeted support for youth by giving them tools and strategies to better manage their mental health while also empowering women through training and career advancement. We know that Syrian women, who have already endured so much, will play an important role in alleviating the mental distress of youth in their communities,” says Dana Townsend, a mental health specialist with the SAMS Foundation. Communities across Northwest Syria will receive treatment that can be individualized to their needs, and women from the community trained as counsellors will gain technical skills and some financial security. 


Hand in Hand for Development Aid

Syria’s ongoing conflict has resulted in an overburdened healthcare system, unable to adequately provide those with physical and mental impairments with the support they need. To meet these needs, Hand in Hand for Aid and Development (HiHFAD)’s comprehensive physical and mental program will support persons with impairments by focusing on physical and mental rehabilitation. “The inclusion of persons living with disabilities is at the forefront of our programs, and our protection team is involved in every project’s design,” says Fadi Aldairi, Hand in Hand for Development Aid’s Country Director.

Where meeting the prosthetic needs of civilians is complicated by border closures and disrupted supply chains from Turkey, in late 2019, HiHFAD established a Prosthetic and Orthotic Centre in Al Bab City, Syria. The Centre has the human resources, equipment, and materials to locally manufacture essential prosthetics and orthotics needed by civilians. “Employees of Hand in Hand for Development Aid who are living with a disability are making a change across programs and implementation. We remain committed to rebuilding an inclusive community and society” says Mr. Aldairi. Staff are working to meet the needs of Syrians in a cheaper, faster and more practical way. Abd Mawla Al Ibrahim is one of those staff working to make change. After losing his leg during displacement in 2012, Abdul Mawla began volunteering at the centre where he received his prosthetic limb. After receiving a University degree in Prosthetics and Orthotics, Abdul Mawla began working in the first centre in Northwest Syria focused on prosthetic fittings. “Everyone should change the way they think about persons living with disabilities and work to include them and provide opportunities for them in society for a sustainable and inclusive future for all,” says Abdul Mawla. “Disability is not an obstacle in the way of development and success.” Abdul Mawla continues to work with Hand in Hand for Development Aid’s centre for prosthetic fitting in Northwest Syria, serving those who have been affected by the conflict. 


Yemen Relief and Reconstruction Foundation

Conflict leads to increased stress and health problems. Airstrikes, fighting and a blockade on major ports and airports have triggered the world’s largest humanitarian crisis, with the world’s largest food insecurity, epidemics of infectious diseases such as cholera, and diphtheria. The dire situation has left an estimated 79% of school children in Yemen suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

In partnership with Yemeni Universities and mental health experts, the Yemen Relief and Reconstruction Foundation will upgrade the skills and knowledge of school counsellors and teachers to address the needs of middle & high school students with PTSD and related mental health issues. Working in 4 schools in Sana’a, the program will focus on training and mentoring.

The innovative content of the program will help support Yemeni youth to develop peer-oriented social media messages and campaigns to raise awareness about mental health services and de-stigmatize care-seeking. The program will also conduct ongoing monitoring and evaluation to ensure progress and outcomes.