Dr Christine Peta Disability Issues —
WE say a disaster has occurred when the impact of an occurrence on a section of society causes injury, disease, death or other losses that overwhelm the society’s ability to cope.
A colleague of mine said, “Now you are hunting for disability in disasters, why can’t you just focus on disability?” I argue that there is disability in disaster management but we just may not see it, so let me explain how and why.
People with disabilities are most vulnerable to both natural and man-made disasters, yet very little has been researched and written about the subject, particularly in African countries.
Man-made disasters are those that occur through what people intentionally do or what they neglect to do, such as the collapse of mines and traffic accidents. Natural disasters that occur in Zimbabwe include floods, droughts, hailstorm, thunderstorms and lightning.
Earthquakes are not common in southern Africa, but the biggest earthquake that struck the Save Valley in Mozambique in 2007, resulting in some people being injured and some property being destroyed in the eastern parts of Zimbabwe, particularly in the Chipinge district (Betera, 2011).
Flood prone areas in Zimbabwe include among others, Muzarabani, Tsholotsho and Gokwe.
Thunderstorm and lightning is most prevalent in Gutu, followed by Binga, Marondera and Rusape. Betera states that although predicting the areas that are going to be struck is not an easy task, people still need to be given advice about objects that attract lightning.
The same author states that, “Tropical cyclones enter Zimbabwe mainly through the South-Eastern and to a lesser extent the North-Eastern part of the country…they cause a lot of damage to people’s livelihoods and infrastructure,” and they usually occur in the month of February.
Droughts can also turn out to be national disasters, think of Zimbabwe’s 1982/3 and the 1991/2 droughts. Disaster planning initiatives in most developing countries often fail to pay attention to the needs of people with disabilities.
Scanty narratives and statistics indicate the nature of problems that are experienced by persons with disabilities in developing countries during times of crisis.
BBC tells stories of people with disabilities who were left to drown during the floods that hit Mozambique in the year 2000 (Twigg, 2004). Furthermore, an international television show featured a man who has a mental disability who was left chained on his bed, as people where fleeing for life during the floods.
Twigg points to India, where persons with disabilities were placed on the roofs of houses during a flood, whilst the rest of the community evacuated.
Sadly, local snakes also escaped the floods by taking refugee on the same roofs; one wonders what happened to the persons with disabilities who were left to share space with the snakes as non-disabled people ran for their lives.
A man was asked by a disaster response officer if there were any more people left at his homestead during an evacuation which followed a flood and he said everyone in his family was now safe.
When the officer went back for a standard final check. He was surprised to find a girl who was alone and crying in a hut at the same man’s homestead.
On being asked why he had said there were no more people who were left at his homestead, the man explained that he thought it was not necessary to mention his daughter because she is disabled with Down Syndrome. From his perspective, his daughter does not count as a human being whose life is worth saving.
It is during times of crisis that the love and capacity of family members to assist a disabled person is most tested. Although not conclusive, statistics derived from crisis situations across the world indicate that persons with disability often suffer the most deaths, injuries and diseases during times of disaster (Harris & Enfield, 2003).
Whether it is a tropical cyclone, flood, drought, cholera or malaria outbreak, people with disabilities are more likely to experience a more negative impact of the crisis compared to their non-disabled counterparts.
Depending on the nature of a person’s disability, his or her ability to manage the situation may be dependent on others. Staff members in rehabilitation institutions have been known to seek to protect themselves first, at the expense of persons with disability.
It is not only people with physical disabilities who may face challenges during times of disaster, but blind people and people with mental disabilities as well.
It is common for some people with mental disabilities to be locked away in homes with their limbs tied so that they will not escape whilst their caregivers attend to other issues outside of the home area.
For a person who rarely interacts with the outside world, it may be difficult to flee in times of disaster as he or she is likely to be suffering from both physical and emotional trauma.
Depending on the nature of the disability, some persons with disability “may be unable to assess risk or to make a choice about whether to flee or to stay,” (Harris & Enfield, 2003). Furthermore, development and relief agencies may erect emergency tents that are not accessible to people with disabilities.
Some development and disability specialists argue that the low status of persons with disability in society increases their vulnerability. The stigma and discrimination that surrounds disability results in people with disabilities being regarded as ‘useless’ people; the needs of non-disabled people may therefore be prioritized over those of people with disabilities.
It is therefore not surprising that in some instances and particularly during periods of drought when there is a shortage of food, the person with a disability may only be given food when everyone else in the family has eaten.
The skewed perspective of some people is that a disaster presents an opportunity to rid society of people with disabilities who are regarded by some caregivers as ‘burdens’.
However, Hall (2011) argues against the notion of using bodily impairment as a measure of determining whether a life is worth living or not. In any case, Garland-Thomson (1997) argues that there is no standard way of defining what it means to be “normal” and the reality is that very few, if any, people can actually fit into the mould of being “normal.”
Zimbabwe is endowed with robust legal instruments which lay a strong foundation for the establishment of risk reduction initiatives. Regular awareness raising in disaster prone areas should educate people about the significance of paying special attention to people with disabilities in times of crisis.
Emergency tents should be accessible to people with disabilities. As highlighted by Betera (2011), the National Policy for Civil Protection states that “every citizen of Zimbabwe should assist where possible to avert or limit the effects of a disaster.”
Dr Christine Peta is a Public Health Care Practitioner who among other qualifications holds a PhD in Disability Studies. Be part of international debate on how best to nurture a society which is more accessible, supportive and inclusive of disabled people. Partner with Disability Centre for Africa (DCFA): WhatsApp; 0773-699-229, Website; www.dcfafrica.com; E-mail; [email protected]
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