Approach Working for Handicap International
By John M. Williams
TAKOMA PARK, Md. -- Handicap International U.S. is an
independent, nonprofit, aid organization that works with people with
disabilities and vulnerable populations to improve their living conditions
while promoting respect for their dignity and fundamental rights.
Handicap International was founded in Thailand in 1982 by
two French doctors as a response to landmine injuries suffered by Cambodians
living in refugee camps. The first orthopedic centers were set up in refugee
camps on the border of Thailand and Cambodia. Simple, locally available
equipment was used, enabling Handicap International to provide immediate,
effective and practical aid and to train competent local teams to carry on the
The U.S. national association, established in 2006, is an
integral part of the Handicap International Federation that includes the French
national association. Its other national association members include Belgium
(established 1986), Switzerland (1996), Luxembourg (1997), Germany (1998), the
United Kingdom (1999) and Canada (2003).
Through various events, the national associations raise
awareness of the federation's activities among the public and political
leaders. Additionally, they provide operational support and technical
expertise, recruit volunteer and professional staff members, raise funds and
carry out work specific to their mission in countries where they operate. The
Swiss national association, for example, represents the Handicap International
network before international authorities based in Geneva, such as the World
Health Organization and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees
(UNHCR), also known as the U.N. Refugee Agency. The U.S. national association
works closely with United Nations organizations based in New York and the World
Bank and other institutions in Washington, D.C.
We advocate for the universal recognition of the
rights of the disabled through national planning and advocacy, said John
Lancaster, treasurer of the Handicap International Federation board of trustees
and secretary of the Handicap International U.S. board of directors.
Together with local partners, Handicap International
develops programs in health and rehabilitation and social and economic
integration. It clears landmines and other war debris and, through education,
prevents mine-related accidents. It responds to natural and civil disasters,
thus limiting serious and permanent injuries, and it assists in survivors'
recovery and reintegration.
We operate 310 programs in 63 countries. Our work
has benefited several million people, said Elizabeth MacNairn, executive
director of the U.S. office of Handicap International. As of 2010, the Handicap
International Federation boasted 4,300 national and expatriate employees
working in the field and 282 employees at its headquarters in Lyon, France, and
in the offices of the national associations.
Handicap International takes a holistic approach to
disability issues. In addition to its rehabilitation activities, the
organization broadened its scope by setting up projects to prevent disabilities
and to facilitate access to education and economic activities at the community
Handicap International knows that an artificial limb alone
doesn't change the life of an amputee. Its approach to rehabilitation is based
on the recognition of individual needs, taking into account a person's
individual situation and his environment, along with the local services
For people injured as a result of war or natural
disasters, who suffer from congenital impairments, such as clubfoot, or who are
affected by disabling diseases, such as polio, rehabilitation is the first step
toward regaining independence, said Lancaster.
The organization's staff members face risks when they go
into a foreign country, such as the threats posed by natural disasters. For
example, Handicap International's staff in the Philippines has experienced
three typhoons since last September. In late January, a major cyclone struck
Mozambique, where the organization operates, and staff members endured
recurrent flooding in Pakistan, where the organization has been providing
refugees with 400,000 liters of drinking water a day.
Outraged by the
horrific effects of landmines, Handicap International created its first
mine-clearing programs in Cambodia and Kurdistan and played a key role in
establishing the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) in 1992
while gathering signatories from 123 countries in
support of the Mine Ban Treaty (also known as the Ottawa Treaty). The treaty
bans the deployment, stockpiling, production and sale of anti-personnel mines
and ensured their destruction.
Since 2003, Handicap International also has been involved
in the fight to ban cluster bombs and is a co-founder of the Cluster Munition
Coalition (CMC) that campaigns for the complete eradication of weapons that
openly violate international humanitarian law.
In December 2008, 94 governments signed the Convention on
Cluster Munitions; since then, more countries have signed and ratified the
treaty. Under the convention, which went into force in August 2010, areas
contaminated by cluster munitions will be cleared, and victims will receive
assistance to rebuild their lives.
Handicap International supports the establishment of
national laws for people with disabilities to ensure that their rights are
respected. As part of that commitment, the organization took part in the
drafting of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The
UNCRPD was adopted in December 2006 at the United Nations headquarters in New
York City and was opened for signature in March 2007. It reaffirms that all
persons with all types of disabilities must enjoy all human rights and
fundamental freedoms and sets out a code of implementation for securing those
The large number of crisis situations and natural
disasters in the past decade (such as the tsunami in 2006 and the earthquakes
in Pakistan and Iran) led Handicap International to frequently intervene in
emergency situations to prevent disabilities from developing and to ensure
there is proper care for people with disabilities, who are often forgotten in
emergency relief efforts.
Handicap International is involved in international public
health issues to reduce disabling diseases such as HIV/AIDS, lymphatic
filariasis and Buruli ulcer. Improving prevention and reducing the number of
cases of these disabling diseases is a public health challenge.
Additionally, as a
result of experiences with Romanian orphanages and the war in the Balkans, the
organization addresses mental health issues.
In January 2010, people in Haiti lost nearly everything
due to a catastrophic earthquake. According to the Haitian government, an
estimated 222,570 people are believed to have died and an estimated 300, 572
people were injured. Handicap International has been working in Haiti since
2008 and responded fewer than 24 hours after the earthquake. The organization
is providing health care and rehabilitation services and producing orthopedic
devices for amputees. Other activities included distributing emergency aid and
setting up transitional shelters for victims of the disaster.
The organization's humanitarian efforts have not gone
unnoticed. In 1996, Handicap International received the United Nations High
Commissioner for Refugees Nansen Refugee Award for its work with refugees and
victims of landmines. The honor, the most prestigious prize that can be awarded
by UNHCR, is given annually to individuals or groups in recognition of
outstanding service to the cause of refugees.
In December 1997, the Ottawa Treaty was signed. One week
later, Handicap International and its ICBL partners were collectively awarded
the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of five years of hard campaigning to reach
In March 2011, the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation announced
that Handicap International was the recipient of that year's Conrad N. Hilton
Humanitarian Prize for doing extraordinary work to alleviate human suffering.
The prize, created in 1996, recognizes and helps advance the efforts of the
recipient organizations and calls attention to the worldwide need for
humanitarian aid. The $1.5 million award ceremony took place in Redwood City,
Calif., in April 2011.
To learn more about Handicap International, visit
www.handicap-international.us. John Williams can be reached at