In times of disaster


HOW prepared are we in dealing with the evacuation and rescue of disabled persons in Malaysia in the event of disasters? After an eight-year journey in searching for answers, I am still no closer to finding a government policy or programme that deals specifically with this issue.

I used to stay on the twentieth floor of a high-rise apartment in Penang. I experienced two earthquakes, one on Boxing Day in 2005 that caused a devastating tsunami across Asia, and another just three months later.

That prompted me to write a letter to the Minister of Women, Family and Community Development and copied to the Chief Minister of Penang and Fire and Rescue Department requesting that they draw up a systemic evacuation plan for disabled persons if there is none.

The Department of Social Welfare replied on behalf of the ministry saying that they will study and seek advice from various parties with regards to the matter. At the same time, the department encouraged the management committee of high-rise apartments to take proactive actions in engaging the Fire and Rescue Department and Civil Defence Department for advice.

To my knowledge, nothing has been done to address this matter since then although the Convention on the Right of Persons with Disabilities and the Persons with Disabilities Act 2008 has called on the government to take necessary measures to ensure that disabled persons have access to assistance in situations of risk.

I was recently invited by the Malaysian Council for Rehabilitation to give a presentation on my experience as a disabled person facing potential situations of disaster at the conference on Incheon Strategy 2012 – 2022: A New Decade for Persons with Disabilities in Malaysia.

The Incheon Strategy is a document adopted by governments that collectively make up the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and The Pacific (UNESCAP). It includes 53 member and nine associate members from countries in these two regions.

The Incheon Strategy was developed over two years of consultation with governments and civil society stakeholders and provides the Asian and Pacific regions, and the world, with 10 disability-inclusive goals to ensure that the rights of disabled persons are protected and respected.

In my presentation on Goal 7 of the Incheon Strategy titled “Ensure Disability-Inclusive Disaster Risk Reduction and Management: A Disabled Person’s Perspective,” I shared my experiences of being caught in a flash flood and earthquakes.

Who should disabled persons trapped in such situations turn to for assistance? Are the call centre personnel trained to handle calls from disabled persons, especially those with speech impairments?

Do rescue personnel know the correct procedures to evacuate disabled persons? A number of us have catheter connected to a urine collection bag that is fastened to the wheelchair. Moving us without detaching the urine bag from the wheelchair could cause serious injury to the bladder.

Persons with osteogenesis imperfecta, or more commonly known as brittle bones disorder, must be moved with care in order not to cause any fracture. A bone fracture will mean months of recuperation and rehabilitation which should be avoided at all costs.

Are rescue personnel aware of these issues? I have no answer to these questions either but being ignorant of it will be detrimental to the well-being of disabled persons being evacuated. The evacuation of disabled persons should not cause further complications to our existing conditions.

The goal to ensure disability-inclusive risk reduction and management in the Incheon Strategy is further strengthened by two targets, three core indicators and three supplementary indicators that have to be achieved by member states. The two targets are strengthening risk reduction planning and strengthening measures to provide timely and appropriate support to disabled persons in times of disaster. The indicators to track the progress of implementation of these goals and targets include the availability of a risk reduction plan and training for all related personnel.

The participants of the workshop consisting of leaders in the disability movement agreed that they were not aware of any official plan by the government in this matter. Even if there is, it will not be effective when disabled persons have no idea of its existence and are not involved in its planning.

In my opinion, fulfilling the core indicators is sufficient to ensure that disabled persons are not left out and forgotten in the event of disasters. The points that I shared have been noted down by the rapporteurs of the workshop and will be included in the document that will be compiled together with recommendations on the other nine goals of the Incheon Strategy that was discussed during the conference.

This document will then be presented to the government for further action. The Incheon Strategy is a comprehensive action plan. However, it is only effective when the recommendations and core indicator are acted upon. The government should seriously consider implementing the core indicators immediately to ensure that disabled persons receive the same attention as non-disabled persons in disaster situations.

I hope I do not have to wait for another eight years to see something tangible from the government in this matter. They have been complacent all these while. The government, with all its expertise and resources, have the means to make risk reduction and management a reality for disabled persons. The government has endorsed the Incheon Strategy and should now make a full commitment towards fulfilling those goals.

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