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Holistic 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 work.

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 level.

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 available.

“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.

Orthopedic workshop, Moïse Métellus trying to walk with his prosthesis with BrunoOutraged 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 rights.

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.

Orthopedic workshop, Julien Ferme, playing football with a beneficiary, Junior.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 that goal. two boys playing with large crutches

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 John Williams can be reached at

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