Flood preparedness for disabled persons — Are we doing enough? – Breaking Barriers – The Borneo Post – 4 January, 2014
Flood preparedness for disabled persons — Are we doing enough?
by Peter Tan. Posted on January 4, 2014, Saturday
FLOODING in Malaysia is a cyclical occurrence given that we are hit by the Northeast Monsoon, which dumps heavy rain on the east coast states in the peninsula and as well as the west coast of Sarawak from November to March every year.
The images of the recent floods in Miri and Bintulu prompted me to revisit the topic on dealing with disasters that I wrote in this column last year. How prepared are we in evacuating mobility impaired persons and how accessible are the evacuation centres?
My family used to live in the fringe of a notoriously flood-prone area in Penang. Down the road from our house, the water could rise to chest-height if it rained non-stop for several hours. It rarely affected us though as the drain outside the house would just overflow most of the time.
One year, water poured into the house. As it continued to rise, my parents were at a loss on how I could be evacuated should the situation get worse. We lived in a single-storey terraced house and there was no higher ground for me to escape to in my wheelchair. When the rain finally stopped, we were wading in filthy ankle-deep water. It was already nightfall. There was no electricity. We had no idea when the water would subside. I shuddered to think about the fate that could befall me had the rain persisted. That happened 20 years ago.
According to the Incheon Strategy, a set of disability-inclusive development goals agreed by 53 countries in Asia and the Pacific, disabled persons and other vulnerable groups are at higher risk of death, injury and additional impairments as a result of exclusion from disaster risk reduction policies, plans and programmes.
From my conversations with officers involved in disaster relief and management recently, there is still no specific action plan to manage the rescue and evacuation of disabled persons in situations of disaster in an orderly manner. This omission is unacceptable as severe flood is a natural and annual event in some states in Malaysia.
Section 40 of the Persons with Disabilities Act 2008 specifically states that disabled persons have the right to assistance on equal basis in situations of risk and humanitarian emergencies which include natural disasters.
Furthermore, the Act obligates the government to take all necessary measures to ensure that disabled persons have the right of assistance in such situations by way of legal as well as administrative mechanisms.
First and foremost, I could not find a hotline to call for assistance after trawling the Internet. There should be a unified telephone number that is easy to remember for this purpose and widely publicised in the mass media. In its absence, the best bet is to contact the police or Fire and Rescue Department (Bomba).
Time is of the essence in flash floods. An up-to-date registry of persons needing assisted evacuations should be maintained. This will be very helpful in case telephone lines are down. Rescue personnel could be dispatched without delay to check on the situation and provide assistance if necessary. All rescue personnel should also be trained to handle the evacuation safely and in a dignified way.
The next issue is the accessibility of relief centres. The majority of schools and community halls that are used for this purpose are not friendly to mobility impaired persons. The question begging answers is why are these buildings not in compliance with the Uniform Building By-Law 34A (UBBL 34A) which requires them to provide access to disabled persons?
The easiest alternative is to put up disabled persons in hospitals. However, this is against the spirit of the Act, an indication of the failure of the government at all levels in providing suitable facilities to everyone in relief centres and a clear violation of the UBBL 34A, which was gazetted by the various states in the 1990s.
On the other hand, mobility impaired persons such as senior citizens and wheelchair users should be aware of several pertinent points to prepare well ahead for such situations, especially those living in low-lying and flood-prone areas.
It is a good thing that the monsoon comes at a predetermined time every year. This allows ample time to stock up on groceries to tide us over the period when we are trapped at home. A list of contact numbers for all nearby police and fire stations would be very useful if and when the situation turns dire.
We should be prepared for evacuation if the worst comes to the worst by packing all essential items such as important documents, medications, adaptive aids, clothes and even diapers to be ready to go at a moment’s notice. Last but not least, keep some spare cash handy for incidental expenses.
Although monsoon flooding is a cyclical phenomenon in this country, the relief agencies time and again are still caught with their pants down for not being able to deal with the disaster decisively, especially in food distribution and provision of basic necessities.
It is high time the government look into the issue of disabled persons in situations of disaster more seriously. There should be a comprehensive plan that all parties are aware of, from the disaster management and relief committee members right down to officers in the field and affected persons.
Malaysia, being a member country that agreed to the Incheon Strategy, has a responsibility to ensure that disabled persons are included in regular emergency preparedness drills and other risk reduction measures to prevent or minimise risk when disasters occur.
My final question is: What has been achieved so far since the Incheon Strategy was adopted in November 2012, and the resolution of the conference by stakeholders on the same topic in July 2013 that was presented to the government?
Comments can reach the writer via email@example.com.
Posts that may be related:
The case for accessible homes
by Peter Tan. Posted on December 28, 2013, Saturday
“HOME is a place you grow up wanting to leave, and grow old wanting to get back to,” said the late John Ed Pearce, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist.
For many of us, home is a house we spend half of our life paying instalments for every month and very likely the biggest investment we ever make. We take pains to gradually turn it into an oasis for us to retire comfortably in many years later.
This insight to think far ahead ensures that there is a roof over our heads when we need it most is all well and good except that the vagaries of old age requires more than a shelter. With advancing age comes a host of health issues. Some are unexpected conditions that we can neither avoid nor prevent, even for those who are of strong constitution.
Stroke, arthritis and fracture of the hip are some of the risks that increase with the progression of age. At the extreme, they cause significant mobility impairments that affect the individual as well as other family members who are providing care and support.
Most, if not all, residential properties were not built to accommodate such situations. Multiple steps, narrow doorways and unsuitable layout of toilet fittings can pose considerable challenges to the activities of daily living of people using mobility aids like the wheelchair or walking frame.
A good case in point is my octogenarian father-in-law who has been living with a bad knee for almost a decade. He walks with a limp that has gotten progressively worse over the years. Of late, he has been falling down a tad too frequent even with the assistance of a walking frame.
There are two sizeable steps into his double-storey house and one step down to the bathroom cum toilet at the ground floor. The family is asking him to consider moving into the room downstairs and hopefully use a wheelchair to improve his mobility. Ramps have to be added at the entrance and in the bathroom, and the toilet layout rearranged for his convenience should he agree to use a wheelchair.
It is going to be costly and messy to renovate the house at this stage. Walls and floors have to be hacked. I understand very well the drawbacks of living in a house that is being remodelled for this purpose, having experienced it twice.
Thin layers of dust would settle on the floor and wall and on every piece of furniture that was not covered. Everything had to be mopped and wiped after the contractors left at the end of each day. The routines of the entire household were disrupted for the duration of the renovation.
We are exploring the options of minimising the inconvenience and chaos this may cause to my in-laws. The challenge now is that house is fully furnished and there is little space left to move the furniture around for the contractors to do their work properly.
If the house was built with accessibility in mind from the beginning, it would have eliminated this predicament we are in now. I did not give much thought about solving the problem at the root cause even as an advocate for an accessible environment until I was interviewed for a newspaper article on this topic.
The journalist asked if it would be better to have all the accessible features incorporated into the property when it was being built. I agreed with him that it would definitely save a lot of money in renovations and elbow grease in cleaning up after the contractors every evening.
Malaysia is set to become an ageing nation by the year 2030 when fifteen percent of the population are sixty years old and above. With disabled persons making up another fifteen percent of the total population as estimated in the World Report on Disability, we will definitely have a significant number of people requiring dwellings that are accessible.
Ideally, these properties, be they landed or high-rise, should have seamless access from the main entrance onwards with wider doorways that are safe and convenient to be used by everyone as promulgated in the seven principles of universal design.
The common arguments against building properties with these features are that more space is required, and that they are unsightly and expensive. On the contrary, research had shown that the cost of accessibility make up less than one percent of total construction costs whereas retrofitting and upgrading the building after completion incurred far more.
A good architect can incorporate these features into the design by aesthetically blending them as part of the entire structure without requiring extra space. All it takes is ingenuity and understanding of how the surroundings can be made to suit the needs of users instead of the other way around.
People will invariably grow old. Some will require all the help they can get to maintain their independence for as long as possible. Others may sustain physical impairments in mid-life like what happened to me. They too can benefit from a home that allows them to function more effectively.
The incorporation of universal design can be a main selling point to these people and those looking for a house or apartment that is truly occupant-friendly. It is time property developers level up their offerings of better designed homes to meet the demands of the time.
The government can play its part in encouraging the construction of such dwellings by providing incentives for qualified developers or even purchasers.
A move like this will ensure that there is an adequate supply of suitable homes to meet the rising demand in the run up to the year 2030.
Posts that may be related:
I was an angry man last week
by Peter Tan. Posted on December 21, 2013, Saturday
THERE is a child in me who has never grown up. At this age, I am still a big fan of that time-travelling blue-coloured robotic cat in Japanese manga fondly known as Doraemon. The earliest encounters I had with this adorable cat was in a bi-weekly Chinese children’s magazine that my mother used to buy for me.
Imagine my delight when I found out that 100 life-sized Doraemons posing with his various gadgets would be on display for 100 days at an exhibition in Kuala Lumpur beginning last week. It was an opportunity that I did not want to miss, especially since it was so close to home.
The tickets were priced at RM25 for adults and RM15 for children aged four to 12. At the same time, the organisers thoughtfully extended free entrance to senior citizens above 60 years old, children below 90 centimetres and disabled persons with one companion.
We were directed to get tickets from the ticket counter by a crew member at the entrance. The woman manning the counter wanted my wife Wuan to pay for a ticket. I pointed to the notice displayed prominently on the window mentioning that a companion could enter for free too. After checking with her colleagues, she confirmed that we need not pay anything indeed. She did not issue any ticket to us and indicated that we just had to inform the crew member before going in.
When we went back to the entrance, we were asked to show our tickets. I explained to the crew member that disabled persons and one companion could get in for free which was also noted in the banner that was right beside where she was standing and that the woman at the ticket counter said that we did not need tickets.
From that point onwards, we were asked to show our tickets several times by different crew members along the way. Those incessant requests started to irritate me. The crew member at the final point before the exhibition hall adamantly refused to let us in, insisting that Wuan must have a ticket. I explained to him but he refused to listen.
I thought that asking him to go read what was stated in the banner would clear up the issue. He refused to do that too. A lady who was observing the altercation from a short distance away approached and asked us what the problem was. She introduced herself as a staff of the company that organised the exhibition.
So, for the umpteenth time, I repeated the condition stated in the banner and poster while the crew member who had refused to let us in continued blabbering away to try to justify his refusal. In the midst of that commotion, another crew member butted in and rudely demanded that I show my disabled person’s identification card issued by the Welfare Department.
In all my years as a disabled person, I have not experienced such indignity while visiting exhibitions and events that required entry fees. I had paid for tickets many times. Paying for tickets was never an issue. I would have gladly paid for two tickets to get into the exhibition. I do not subscribe to the notion that disabled persons are entitled to discounts and privileges. I will never demand for them. However, when courtesies such as free entry were extended by the organisers, I appreciatively accepted them.
Never once was I required to produce the identification card previously to substantiate my status as a disabled person. My wheelchair was already an obvious indication. Still, I would have shown my card willingly at the ticket counter had there been a request.
What I found most unacceptable was the demand for the card as an afterthought and the fuss Wuan and I were put through just because the crew members were not aware that we could go in for free. It made me feel as if we were freeloaders and that I was faking an impairment.
We were allowed into the exhibition hall eventually when a senior crew member confirmed Wuan’s eligibility. The lady from the organising company apologised profusely for the kerfuffle but the incident had already spoilt the excitement of my anticipation. Needless to say, I was an angry man after that.
Dealing with rude people is a test of my patience in many ways, particularly when they treat disabled persons condescendingly. It is exasperating. It makes me angry. I have mellowed over the years. I do not get angry very often now. When I do, it must be something serious.
Where I once allowed my anger to rage on unproductively, I now channel it into getting positive outcomes. Like the proverbial saying, “It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.” As I look back, it was anger that fuelled the passion in what I do as a disability rights activist. It fanned my motivation to speak out against mistreatments of disabled persons instead of meekly accepting them. Anger, in that sense, had been a good thing for me.
After coming back from the exhibition, I went looking for the email address of the organiser. Having found it, I sent a terse email outlining my awful experience. I have not received a reply at the time of writing. It does not matter if I do not get a response. All I hope for is that the organiser is aware of the issue and will educate the crew members on handling matters like this with tact and respect in the future.
As for Doraemon, that experience has not diminished my love for him. Apart from being cute, there is always a lesson to be learnt from his manga and anime, be it honesty, humility or respect. That is what I like about his stories. Additionally, I have a figurine of him with a silly grin sitting on my work desk. Looking at his demeanour always make me happy. And that is not the child in me talking.
Comments can reach the writer via firstname.lastname@example.org.