The Hidden Harm: Acquired Disability During Conflict


By Will Pons, Policy Intern, Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC)

The stark reality of the challenges and threats faced by persons with disabilities during armed conflict has been laid bare in Iraq, Syria, the Central African Republic, Yemen, and South Sudan. Particularly for those with newly acquired disabilities, living in conflict means struggling to obtain not only necessary medical treatment, but also access to food, sanitation, and water. Despite the courage of their family, friends, neighbors, or even strangers, persons with disabilities face the unfortunate realities of starvation, abuse, targeted killings, and abandonment in conflict zones. Even if they are able to escape the fighting, persons with disabilities face barriers, stigma, and discrimination once they reach refugee and internally displaced person camps.

The considerable challenges facing persons with pre-existing disabilities during armed conflict have been well documented, and the international community has begun to acknowledge that more needs to be done to ensure their full protection. But these efforts also need to include the perspective of those individuals who have acquired disabilities due to the conflict and are navigating new environmental and societal barriers.

The World Health Organization estimates that about 15.3 percent of the world’s population is living with some form of disability. However, the overall rate of disability can jump to 18-20 percent or higher in conflict-affected populations because of “new injuries, a lack of quality medical care, or collapse of essential services.” These newly acquired disabilities range from long-term physical, sensory, psychosocial, and intellectual impairments to short-term and transient disabilities.

Individuals with newly acquired disabilities struggle with the same challenges as persons are already living with disabilities, but without their prior knowledge or experience. In many cultures and societies, persons with disabilities are often seen as either needing charity or are simply “invisible.” Social, attitudinal, informational, and physical barriers are reinforced by the stigma and discrimination surrounding disability, which ultimately reduce the ability of persons with disabilities to develop resilience mechanisms. For persons who acquire a disability during conflict, however, these barriers can be even more acute as they struggle with failing infrastructure, health services, and access to food and medicine.

To better accommodate the unique challenges facing persons with disabilities in conflict and specifically those with newly acquired disabilities before, during, and after conflict, governments and humanitarian organizations should focus on three main initiatives:

  • First, take an inclusive approach to emergency response and planning that considers the specific challenges and dangers affecting persons with disabilities during armed conflict by including disabled persons organizations.
  • Second, disaggregate population data to break down disability by age, gender, type of disability, and cause of disability, as well as by information about family and support networks to better inform humanitarian and emergency responses.
  • Third, eliminate social, attitudinal, informational, and physical barriers—including stigma and discrimination—by using a human rights based approach and by ensuring adherence to the customary international humanitarian principle of adverse distinction and the international human rights principle of non-discrimination.

Disability regularly intersects with other vulnerabilities in conflict like gender and age to place persons with disabilities at significantly greater risk of harm compared to other civilians. Given that persons with disabilities are “invisible” in peacetime, it is therefore essential to ensure their inclusion in civilian protection processes and incumbent on governments and humanitarian organizations to recognize and address their needs during conflict.

Image courtesy Getty Images/Chris Hondros