LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Most people living with disabilities are not prepared for disasters, nor are they consulted about their needs in emergencies, making them more likely to be killed or injured, according to a global survey released by the United Nations on Thursday.
For example, only 20 percent of the 5,450 respondents from 126 countries said they could evacuate immediately and without difficulty in the event of a sudden disaster, such as a storm or flood. The rest would have a degree of difficulty in doing so, while 6 percent would not be able to leave their homes at all.
The survey also showed that 71 percent of respondents have no personal preparedness plan for disasters.
Margareta Wahlström, head of the U.N. Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR), described the survey results as "shocking".
"It clearly reveals that the key reason why a disproportionate number of disabled persons suffer and die in disasters is because their needs are ignored and neglected by the official planning process in the majority of situations," she said in a statement. "They are often left totally reliant on the kindness of family, friends and neighbours for their survival and safety."
When the Great East Japan earthquake and tsunami hit in March 2011, the number of disabled people who died was double the death toll among the able-bodied population. The Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 killed 61 of the 102 people living at the Sambodhi Residential home in Galle, Sri Lanka, because they could not leave their beds or did not understand the need to escape.
Responses to the U.N. survey revealed numerous problems experienced in crisis situations by people with seeing, hearing, mobility and communication difficulties - from failing to receive warning messages, to being stuck without elevators in tall buildings, unable to access emergency shelters and lacking sufficient medication.
“Because I can’t hear sirens, when there is severe weather, I have to stay awake to watch storms until (they are) all gone,” said a male respondent from the United States in his 40s.
"I have what I need in my home, but the average disabled can't afford it on a fixed income, and the shelters - most disabled people can't get to them because of transportation," commented an American woman.
The largest number of survey participants were based in Bangladesh (32 percent), followed by the United States (19 percent) and Vietnam (14 percent). The top five hazards or disaster risks they faced were floods, extreme weather, tornadoes, drought and and earthquakes.
Among the respondents, 68 percent had some degree of difficulty walking or climbing steps, 54 percent seeing, 45 percent communicating and 39 percent hearing. The survey will continue until the end of the year to enlarge the sample.
AWARENESS 'STARTING TO TAKE HOLD'
The first set of results was issued ahead of the International Day for Disaster Reduction on Oct. 13, which aims to highlight the emergency needs of the world's 1 billion or so people living with some form of disability. It will also promote the contribution disabled people can make to keep themselves and others in their communities safe - if given the chance.
In the survey, just 17 percent of respondents said they were aware of a disaster management plan in their local area. Only 28 percent said it fully or partly addressed their needs, and a meagre 14 percent said they had been consulted on it. But half said they would like to participate in disaster management and risk reduction.
"The national risk reduction plan is just for normal functioning individuals," said one woman in the Philippines. A male respondent said the issue of disability in disaster planning "is just starting to take hold" in the United States, and the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) "is more aware now than they have ever been before".
Disability activists also scored a success last year when the Asian Ministerial Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, recognised the inclusion of people with disabilities in disaster planning in its declaration.
Respondents to the U.N. questionnaire also pointed to some measures that can aid disabled people when disasters happen, besides common preparations such as first aid kits, food stocks and battery packs. They include subtitled alerts on television, wheelchair access and transport to evacuation facilities, generators to power wheelchairs and cold storage for medication, and having a 'help needed' sign to put in the window. Cost, however, can be a restricting factor.
EARLY WARNING KEY
UNISDR also asked people what they would like to see included in the next global framework for action on disaster risk reduction, due to be agreed in 2015. Suggestions included raising community awareness about disabled people's needs, adapting emergency communications and better-equipped shelters.
The U.N. agency said the survey underlined the importance of early warning systems, and ensuring they reach all members of a community, including those with disabilities. The percentage of respondents who said they could evacuate with no difficulty provided they were given enough time almost doubled to 38 percent.
“If I have prior knowledge bad weather is going to occur overnight, I sleep in my wheelchair so that I can take cover quickly,” said an American woman in her 20s.
UNISDR's Wahlström said the survey "provides us with a new insight into how to build a world more resilient to disasters for both disabled and able-bodied people". She promised that her agency would make sure the knowledge and experiences of those with disabilities are "taken fully into consideration" at the 2015 world conference in Japan, where the new global action plan for disaster reduction will be adopted.
UNISDR is running a social media campaign, taglined "Disability is NOT inability", which will send out tweets on Oct. 13. You can sign up on the Thunderclap site.