Disability and Human Mobility

For the inclusion of persons with disabilities on the move in the Americas


Due to a number of factors, information on the situation of refugees, displaced persons and migrants with disabilities is limited in the region. This generates a series of gaps that impact on response and action plans.

The regional study provides an overview of the situation and priority needs of refugees, displaced persons and migrants with disabilities in the region. It contributes to the development of a roadmap with regional protection capacities that will help strengthen the inclusion of persons with disabilities on the move in the policies and plans of States and humanitarian organizations.

Information was collected in Colombia, Chile, Ecuador, Peru, Venezuela, Mexico and Central America, identifying the specific conditions in the various contexts of displacement that exist in the region.

The study covers the gaps and challenges faced by States and humanitarian organizations, shows the barriers and protection risks faced by persons with disabilities during the different stages of displacement, from leaving their country of origin to future expectations. It also provides some insights into the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on persons with disabilities.

This regional study was carried out by organizations that represent persons with disabilities, led by the Latin American Network of Non-Governmental Organizations of Persons with Disabilities and their Families (RIADIS) and carried out jointly with Coalition Mexico for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (COAMEX), Mexico; Society and Disability (SODIS), Peru; and Humanity&Inclusion, Colombia, with support from the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). Disability and Human Mobility responds to UNHCR’s commitments to promote comprehensive responses and strengthen the participation of forcibly displaced persons with disabilities, ensuring their protection, integration and the search for solutions.

A call to action


Humanitarian Organizations

Situation of persons with disabilities on the move in the Americas

Motiviation for leaving their place of origin or residence

The main reasons why persons with disabilities leave their countries include limited access to health services (such as habilitation and rehabilitation), the high cost of support devices, lack of access to employment and loss of purchasing power, as well as insecurity and threats to their physical safety due to violence, persecution, armed conflict, crime and threats that endanger their lives and those of their families.

“Because of the economic situation in the country, because of health issues, because of personal safety. My husband was campaigning and he was threatened.” (Interview with a Venezuelan woman with a disability in Ecuador, 2020).’

The people from Venezuela who were consulted as part of the study stated that the current situation in the country has led to a deterioration of living conditions that translates into a violation of their human rights. For persons with disabilities, it is not just about the satisfaction of basic needs, but also about the impossibility of accessing a health and rehabilitation system that responds to their needs and ensures dignified living conditions. In addition, situations of violence and threats jeopardize people’s safety.

“(…) on October 8, gang members attacked and killed (…) my children’s grandfather. My eldest son saw how they were following him and then one of the gang members … approached him with a gun, threatened him and told him that if he said anything about what he had seen, they were going to kill him…” (Interview with Salvadoran woman with a disability in Mexico, 2020).

People from Central American countries are forced to move, both within and across borders, for reasons of violence, persecution and insecurity due to the control exercised by criminal groups and gangs. These factors are worsened by the lack of opportunities, poverty and natural disasters.

Among the persons with disabilities who were consulted as part of the study, some mentioned that they had little or no preparation before leaving their country of origin. In other cases, the decision was sudden for different reasons, primarily because of the threats and persecution that endangered their lives. In these situations, people do not have documents or do not comply with the requirements set by some countries and are forced to cross borders irregularly. Persons with disabilities who contributed to the study reported having raised money through savings, the sale of personal belongings and even loans to finance their journey.

77.2% of persons with disabilities who were consulted as part of the study stated that they did not receive any type of support to leave the country, while just 18.9% stated that they received economic support from friends and relatives generally living outside of the country, which is the destination for most people on the move.

Migration route

The assessment identifies three main risks during the journey for persons with disabilities, which are associated with insecurity and violence; discrimination; and lack of accessibility.

The risks associated with insecurity and violence are especially severe for women, girls and children with disabilities, as they are exposed to situations of abuse, gender-based violence and sexual violence committed by armed groups, gangs, organized crime and others.

The risks increase when people transit without documentation, forcing them to enter countries through irregular border crossings. This exposes them to increased risks of robbery, abuse, violence or extortion by criminal groups along the migration route.

“…I crossed [the border] at an illegal border crossing, with my one-year-old girl with a disability and my two-month-old baby…” (Interview with a mother of a Venezuelan son with a disability in Ecuador, 2020).

Due to insecurity and violence, most of the people interviewed in the participating countries stated that they did not know what steps they should take to file a police report or preferred not to report any incident to the local police and remain anonymous as a protective measure. The lack of an assistance mechanism during displacement increases existing protection risks for persons with disabilities.

62% of the people surveyed were discriminated against through actions and attitudes. It is evident that persons with disabilities on the move suffer from double discrimination in transit and host countries, because of their disability and because of their nationality, which creates a significant barrier.

There is a lack of accessibility to transport for mobility, safe environments during the journey, physical facilities provided by humanitarian and government organizations and access to information. At least half of all persons with disabilities on the move and their family members stated that during their journey in transit and destination countries they did not receive information about their rights and services in accessible formats.

During the last few years, many of the persons with disabilities consulted in Mexico and Central America stated that travelling as part of the so-called “migrant caravans” is much easier, as to some extent they are accompanied and receive support at certain times during the journey, while moving on their own would be complex.

There is a prevalence of disabilities acquired in transit, primarily on the route to Mexico and the United States, due to the use of freight trains for travel known as “The Beast”.

Situation in host communities

Social, cultural, political, communication, attitudinal, environmental and institutional barriers limit the inclusion of persons with disabilities in host countries. Examples include lack of employment, discrimination due to nationality and disability, difficulty accessing asylum procedures and regularization processes, access to justice and other protection actions.

One of the main obstacles to their rights is difficulty with accessing disability certification in host countries. This has an impact on access to health, education and social protection systems for persons with disabilities. 61% of persons with disabilities had access to public health services in host countries. However, 56% reported being moderately to completely dissatisfied with the health services they received. 28% of refugees, displaced persons and migrants with disabilities, family members and/or members of support networks are unemployed; 8% are formally employed; the rest are engaged in casual or temporary work, such as street vending or have started a business. In Central America, 2 out of 3 people have been forced into low-income primary economic activities with no employment benefits.

“I’ve been looking for a job and I haven’t been able to find one. One reason is the pandemic. Another is my disability. Companies don’t prioritize hiring someone like me. So I’m really struggling. We’re going to keep looking, because there’s no other way.” (Interview with Honduran man with a disability who is a naturalized Mexican in Mexico, 2020)

81% of the people surveyed stated that children and adolescents with disabilities do have access to public education. In addition, 55% of the people consulted believe that the public education system where they are is not inclusive and does not recognize the needs of children and adolescents with disabilities.

More than 50% of the people surveyed cannot afford an internet connection, 18% do not have a mobile phone and 16% do not have the skills to manage and use applications.

The lack of accessibility to the communication channels used by humanitarian organizations and State institutions is repeatedly highlighted. There is a lack of sign language interpreters, both local and in the countries of origin, and in most cases communication channels are not universally accessible.

86% of the persons with disabilities who were surveyed stated that they participate moderately or not at all in consultations or decision-making processes. Efforts should be made to promote spaces for the participation of persons with disabilities so that their voices are heard.

Expectations for the future

The immediate expectations of the people surveyed are focused on two fundamental factors: improving their economic conditions through employment or entrepreneurship; and regularizing their legal status in the host country.

52% of the people surveyed feel optimistic about expectations for the future while 46% perceive an uncertain future with few possibilities.

Some of the persons with disabilities on the move who were consulted stated that they have an expectation that one day they will be able to return to their country of origin when the conditions that led to their departure change and they feel that they can build a life.

“I imagine a future in my country, that there will be stable conditions so it is not so complicated to meet our needs.” (Interview with a visually impaired Venezuelan man in Chile, 2020).

Despite the different barriers identified for persons with disabilities on the move, there are some facilitating elements, including support networks; prioritization in humanitarian assistance programs; the coordination of actions to provide protection measures; and the solidarity and support of host communities.

STORY: Life is an ‘uphill battle’ for displaced persons with disabilities

Manuel worked as a driver, taking passengers around his native Guatemala. Unfortunately, he became the target of a criminal group, whose members began to extort him by demanding weekly payments that were so costly that Manuel could not afford them. In retaliation, they beat him up so brutally that his left leg had to be amputated and he and his wife Ana had no choice but to flee the country.

Ana and Manuel took some of their belongings with them. In order to protect their children from the trauma and dangers of the journey, they sent them to stay with relatives in a distant region of the Central American country. Manuel and his wife took several buses to cross the northern border into Mexico.

“It was very difficult because it had only been four months since the amputation,” Manuel recalled.

… Read the full story here.

The impact of COVID-19 on persons with disabilities on the move in the Americas

It was identified that the main problem caused by the pandemic is the loss of sources of income because the majority of persons with disabilities on the move were previously engaged in informal work. This resulted in refugees and migrants with disabilities having limited access to food, medicine and rent, increasing the risk of eviction.

More than 50% of the people surveyed stated that they did not receive humanitarian assistance during the pandemic. Of those who did receive assistance, 50% felt that it was not inclusive and did not take into account the specific needs of persons with disabilities.

Mobility restrictions to reduce the spread of COVID-19 have affected persons with visual and hearing impairments, as they have not been able to receive support from others to move around cities. Lockdowns have affected the mental health of persons with disabilities, causing depression, anxiety and strained interpersonal relationships within families.

The increased use of online mechanisms as a form of remote communication during the pandemic has highlighted the gap in access to technology, internet connections and telephone services for persons with disabilities, as well as the lack of accessible communication formats.

Conclusions and Recommendations

The regional study identifies gaps and opportunities to work comprehensively for and with refugees, displaced persons and migrants with disabilities. The main points to be considered include:


Humanitarian and government organizations:

Persons with disabilities on the move:

Partner Organizations