Interview

Volume 3 Issue 2 - January 15, 2005

"Disabled people's needs differ very little from their non-disabledcommunity members"

Persons with disabilities are amongst those that are particularly vulnerable to and following disasters.This has been brought forcefully in the wake of the tsunami. Alana Officer, Director for Handicap International's programmes in India, talks to Chitra S. Shankar about relief and rehabilitation for disabled people.

What background does Handicap International have in providing emergency relief?

In Sri Lanka our team is based in Batticola where the Tsunami hit so we responded within hours of the emergency.

Handicap International normally does not provide primary emergency relief. By primary relief, I mean water, food, clothing, temporary shelter, etc. HI generally intervenes in the rehabilitation / reconstruction phase following a disaster. Disability is not a short term issue and as we work in partnerships and build capacities locally we are generally in for the long haul. Most recently HI has worked in Bangladesh following the floods. Before that we were working in Iran and Gujarat , etc, following the earthquakes, etc.

What is the awareness level of NGOs involved in disaster management in India regarding disability?

Generally the awareness level of organisations on disability issues is low. Persons with disabilities, whether physical, cognitive, or emotional, whether temporary or permanent are amongst those that are particularly vulnerable to, and following, disasters. Women with disabilities and disabled persons who are orphaned are particularly vulnerable if good community support networks do not exist. Very few organisations have had the opportunity to be trained on disability issues and to look and plan for how disabled people along with other vulnerable persons needs can be addressed in disaster preparedness plans and responses. Without this the quality of assistance offered to all vulnerable persons, especially those with disabilities may not be adequate and/ or accessible.

In the case of the Gujarat earthquake many organizations (local and international) were sensitized about disability and have a certain level of capacity to include disabled people in their rehabilitation activities. Many of these organizations are working in the south of India .

In the relief work that is taking place now for the tsunami disaster, what special efforts are being made to ensure access of relief measures to disabled people? What are the particular needs of disabled people?

Especially in relief work it is important to respect the global needs of people affected by the tsunami. Access to relief materials and rehabilitation initiatives for disabled persons and their families should be done with a view to equal opportunities. Positive discrimination in favour of people with disabilities in community settings may be counter-productive to reducing vulnerability and exclusion.

Recently organisations have been working to ensure all people get access to relief. A number of organizations such as Deaf way, Action Aid and Blind People's Association along with Saddbhawna Rural Development Trust have been delivering relief and ensuring access to disabled people.

Now people are planning long term rehabilitation programmes in the areas of water and sanitation psychosocial support, livelihood support, housing/ shelter, disaster preparedness, etc. Disabled people's needs differ very little from their non-disabled community members. In other words disabled people need to eat, have access to clean drinking water, go to school/ work, etc Hence it is necessary that rehabilitation programmes take into consideration the different abilities of disabled people so that they can access resources as well as contribute to the reconstruction process. Where disabled persons have difficulty accessing mainstream rehabilitation initiatives, then these need to be adapted to address the needs of the disabled population. For example this could be as simple as ensuring that a hearing impaired person in need of psychosocial support has access to a counsellor who knows sign language or that a sign language interpreter is available. When this would not suffice, then specific initiatives should be undertaken for disabled persons to ensure they get access to their rights.

What's the main focus of the tsunami relief operations of Handicap International?

HI is currently focussing its efforts on Sri Lanka and Indonesia . These two countries have been severely hit and have requested international assistance. HI is open to working in partnership with disabled people and NGOs in Tamil Nadu if there is a need within our key operational areas; Physical Rehabilitation and support, Public Health, Accessibility and Inclusion (that is, education, employment access to mainstream programmes including disaster preparedness, etc).

Do you have the figures of the disabled people who have been affected and those who have been disabled (physically and mentally) in the disaster?

We know that Tamil Nadu prior to the tsunami had one of the highest number of disabled people/100,000 in the country. As a result of the tsunami we know from the government website that 3,324 have been injured in Tamil Nadu . No detail on the type and extent of the injury and what percentage, if any, may result in permanent disability is known. Although we are moving from a relief to a rehabilitation phase it is too early to know the numbers of disabled people that have been affected, those that have died and those persons who have become disabled as a result of the tsunami. These figures will come out progressively over the next few months.

Please share the relief work that Handicap International is doing for disabled victims of Tsunami.

As previously stated HI has maintained a global approach to persons made vulnerable by the tsunami this includes persons with disabilities. In Sri Lanka Initially HI was providing first aid and transporting corpses in the hard-hit eastern region around the town of Batticaloa . Next we started working in partnership to deliver basic aid in terms of food and water, etc, to persons in Batticaloa and Ampara and to provide medical care to prevent secondary complications from respiratory infections, lacerations, fractures, etc. Without appropriate interventions these persons are at risk of developing disabilities. We are also working to ensure the autonomy of persons disabled prior to the tsunami through initially the provision of pre fabricated assistive devices which they may have lost when the wave went back out to sea.

Teams in Sri Lanka and Sumatra are just completing their assessment on the medium- and long-term needs. These include, in varying degrees, depending on the resources in each country -- medical and rehabilitation support, psychosocial counselling, support to disabled peoples organisations and mainstream actors to ensure the inclusion of disabled people in their rehabilitation and disaster preparedness programmes.

What difficulties are you facing in reaching disabled people who have been affected by the Tsunami?

Community members are often very good at identifying and supporting disabled persons. With the level of destruction and death these community networks have been weakened and it has been more difficult to identify disabled persons.

Secondly, in many places there are no concrete data on the numbers of disabled people so it is difficult to know whether they are all being covered through relief efforts.

What special needs have been brought to the fore by the tsunami in India vis-à-vis disability?

Each country affected by the tsunami will, on the basis of the level of destruction, have different needs. I am not in a position to speak for most of the countries affected. In Sri Lanka and Sumatra a number of children and adults have serious respiratory problems following the salt water inhalation. A number of people are also developing secondary complications (that is, amputations) as a result of fractures and lacerations. These are areas we have or will be working on with partners in each country.

One obvious need is alternative livelihoods for persons disabled as a result of the tsunami as well as support for disabled persons who have lost their livelihood as a result of the tsunami.

Each disaster and the tsunami is no different; it brings to the fore the need for appropriate disaster preparedness/mitigation measures that include disabled people in their development and ensures their involvement in their implementation. Furthermore, it provides an opportunity to ensure that all reconstruction activities are inclusive, for example tube wells/toilets, etc, are made to ensure access for disabled persons.

Many survivors are going through a lot of mental anguish and guilt. Are they being given any counselling? What are the particular difficulties faced when trying to provide such aid?

I think all actors realise the need for psychosocial counselling. In India there are organisations that are or will be providing psychosocial support. Action Aid India in partnership with NIHMANS has considerable experience in this area following the super cyclone in Orissa and the earthquake in Gujarat. UNICEF and others are also looking at appropriate support.

Could you outline your experience in Handicap International, how long you have been in India, along with previous roles and your interest in the disability sector?

I have worked for Handicap International for the past seven years in the Republic of Central Africa, Nepal, Bangladesh, The Philippines, Thailand and India in various technical advisory and managerial capacities. I am currently the Director for HI's programmes in India. I am committed to working with disabled people and others to increase participation and ensure equal opportunities for disabled people because I believe that it improves their quality of lives, mine and yours.

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