The report highlights a highly successful innovative business in Nakivale, Uganda, that sources canned tuna from Somali-trade networks in Kenya (originally sourced from Thailand) and sells it to Somali refugees who do not want local fish.
So what are the barriers that refugees with disabilities face when it comes to engaging with innovations in refugee situations, such as setting up a new business? Few studies have investigated this; an indication in itself of the issue’s neglect. Those that have — among the best recent examples cover Somalian refugees in Kenya  and Syrian refugees in Lebanon  — find remarkably similar barriers in three broad areas.
First, stigmatisation of and discrimination against disabled people leads to their near-universal exclusion in refugee action responses. Disabled people can be subjected to significant abuse within refugee communities because of false beliefs held by those living and working there about the reasons for their impairments — for example that they are divine punishment. Unless prejudice is tackled, disabled people have strong security and protection needs.
Second, environmental barriers prevent physical access to disabled people. This includes inaccessible buildings, poor roads and distribution systems that overlook the access needs of people with impairments. Also, inadequately formulated communications exclude those with physical, sensory and intellectual impairments.
The third area is institutional barriers, which can affect refugees both inside and outside dedicated camps in different ways. These include a lack of official recognition of disabled people when collecting statistics on refugees. This is important as it affects responses to their needs in refugee communities. The studies mentioned earlier found a lack of acknowledgement of disabled people in official systems leads to their exclusion from plans.
Coming back to the tuna seller example, a disabled person would face multiple challenges embarking on a venture like this. Would their shop be physically accessible to them? Would regulations allow a deaf trader to access transferred funds from outside (it is common for deaf people to be excluded from bank accounts)? And most importantly, would customers boycott their shop due to false beliefs that the purchased tuna could “contaminate” them? Many disabled people struggle to trade because potential customers believe they will “catch” their impairment from them.
Many of these issues boil down to inaccurate assumptions about people with impairments, prejudices, false perceptions about the actual cost of inclusion and the lack of proper data capture to help inform resource allocations.
SciDev.Net’s news story highlights that in some instances of innovation user-centred design and participation, early consultation to allow solutions to fit with cultural practices and user-driven priority setting are all important ways of fostering innovation among refugees. These points also apply to including disabled people in innovative processes and would help tackle the barriers outlined above.
Without intentional consultation using methods and formats that are inclusive of different impairment issues and accessible places to meet, disabled people will be denied the opportunity to participate in innovation processes. Consultation needs to be with groups of disabled people authentically representing both men and women with different impairments to achieving full credible input.
Awareness-raising to dispel false beliefs among other refugees, the organisations working with them and donors, is also vital.
SciDev.Net’s article ended with a call to this being the “start of a conversation” about involving user capacities. I urge that conversation to intentionally include the views and capacities of disabled people living as refugees.
Sue Coe has worked in international development for 25 years across Africa, Asia, Europe and the Middle East. Now a development and disability inclusion consultant, she previously worked for World Vision, Practical Action (formerly ITDG), VSO and Action on Hearing Loss (formerly RNID). Sue can be contacted at email@example.com
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References Joy Wee Examining factors impacting community based rehabilitation in a refugee camp — An explanatory case study (Asia Pacific Disability Rehabilitation Journal, 2010)
 Disability Inclusion in the Syrian Refugee Response in Lebanon (Women’s Refugee Commission, July 2013)