Unable to flee or hear early warnings, people with disabilities are more likely to suffer when disasters strike. At a conference in Geneva, they share their stories, concerns and solutions.
GENEVA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Kajal Rekha was 18 when the river near her village in Sreepur Union in northern Bangladesh overflowed, flooding her family's house, and leaving her stranded on her bed on top of a bamboo table for two months, more or less alone. Rekha could not leave for a safer place like her relatives because she could not walk, after an accident that injured her spinal cord.
Her husband had deserted her after she became disabled, and during the flood, she relied on her sister to bring her food at night. She could not go to the toilet when she wanted, and she was frightened she would become the victim of a crime.
Thankfully, Rekha was brought into a project run by Dhaka-based Centre for Disability in Development (CDD) to help people in her area cope with disasters. She received training in what to do when a crisis strikes, and now plays a leading role on a disaster management committee in her community.
She is the proud owner of a sewing machine, which enables her to earn a living, along with some chickens and goats. She grows vegetables, and the family house has been raised to prevent it from flooding.
"I want freedom in my life, I do not want to depend on other people," she told Thomson Reuters Foundation at the Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction in Geneva this week. On the back of her wheelchair, she had taped a poster calling for the inclusion of disabled people in the next global plan of action on disaster reduction, due to be agreed in 2015.
She was not alone at the meeting. Rekha is part of the Disability Inclusive Disaster Risk Reduction Network for Asia and the Pacific (DiDRRN), a group of disability and development organisations that teamed up last October and is pushing for people with disabilities to have equal access to disaster aid and protection.
They received a boost when the Asian Ministerial Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, last year recognised the inclusion of people with disabilities in disaster planning in its declaration.
When earthquakes, tsunamis and storms strike, disabled people are more likely to be killed, injured or fall sick, and to lose their homes and income. They may be unable to run away, or perhaps they do not hear early warnings.
One reason it is taking so long for their vulnerabilities to be recognised is the lack of information about their situation, said Sae Kani of Malteser International. She has worked in developing countries with disabled people across Southeast Asia for the past 10 years.
"They are always the last ones to be counted. They don't come to collect the emergency relief items... they are always invisible," she said. "So in terms of counting the number of victims or the damage suffered by persons with disability, it is very minimal."
That is changing. Disability groups in Japan collected information from the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, revealing last year that the mortality rate among people with disabilities was double that of the rest of the affected population.
Evidence of the impact of the crisis on disabled people has boosted awareness in Japan, Kani said. And the presence for the first time of a number of disabled disaster reduction experts at the Global Platform was a big step forward for their participation, she added.
Jo Matsuzaki, an associate professor at Japan's Miyagi University of Education, is deaf and lived through the quake. "I believe strongly that in all phases - from the time that the disaster happens, to relief and rehabilitation - people with disabilities should be visible, included and cared for," he said.
At a Global Platform event featuring children’s views, 11-year-old Danh from Vietnam, who has a physical disability and a speech impairment, called for more help to enable disabled people to flee floods.
He recalled how frightened he had been when his village in a rural area of Quang Nam district was hit by a big flood, "higher than my sister’s head". His mother carried him up to the second floor of his house, but as the water kept rising, he asked her to push him out through the roof if it reached that high.
"One hour later, the water started to get lower, and my mum said 'thank god'," he told a moved audience at the conference.
He and his family have received training from Malteser International, and Danh is now no longer afraid because he knows what to do when the floods come, but he appealed to the audience to help children like him to be prepared.
"From that experience, whenever I see floods and rain, I feel very scared. I beg you: please develop a flood preparedness plan and evacuate kids with disabilities to a safe place, and please teach us and our family members about how to be ready for floods."
The needs of people with disabilities in disasters vary according to the nature of their physical or mental impairment - a fact that will be highlighted Oct. 13 on International Day for Disaster Reduction, which focuses on people with disabilities this year.
Activists plan to use social media to show how the well-known, simple earthquake drill - "drop (to the floor), cover (your head), hold (onto something)" - can be adapted in different ways for disabled people. The idea is to promote public understanding of the challenges facing them in emergencies and how these can be overcome.
The hope is that the week-long campaign will create an international buzz about efforts to include disabled people in disaster prevention in Asia.
"Currently, the undertakings to make disaster risk reduction more disability inclusive are centred on Asia-Pacific and are spreading to other parts of the world. I hope it will truly be globalised," Matsuzaki said.
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