When the Tsunami struck Japan in 2011 the world watched in horror as lives were lost and destruction reigned. But there was a hidden tragedy that struck those with a disability the hardest.
The disabled community suffered deaths and injuries between two and three times greater than their non-disabled peers and for them injury, rescue and restoration were more difficult, more painful and far slower. The greatest impact fell upon the deaf. In one coastal town, half of all deaf people died and in others the average was 20%.
In Tokyo this month I listened to the stories of the survivors. One deaf woman said her deaf husband left work in his car without being aware of the impending disaster, he never returned home. A father described how his son with Multiple Sclerosis gave up his attempt to reach safety without sufficient help, he was swept away. A wife explained how she kept her husband alive after power went out, as he had suffered a stroke and was dependent on technology to prevent him from choking and to regulate his body temperature.
There were many other stories, which posed the question as to how we can protect those with disabilities with technology, even when disaster hits.
Four crucial issues are raised:
• The planning and preparedness of people with a disability
• The format and accessibility of Alerts
• The speed and effectiveness of evacuation
• The availability of accessible shelter and support for technologies
Technology has a vital role to play in addressing these issues.
The planning and preparedness of people with a disability
It is critical that people with a disability are fully involved in the planning of responses to disasters. Understanding the needs of disabled citizens is the first step in ensuring that the emergency plan is fully inclusive and appropriate for all. Think about how a blind person would know where to evacuate to. What should a wheelchair user do in the event of a fire? How does a deaf person know that a fire has happened? Communication and information is vital. In Qatar, Mada (Qatar Assistive Technology Center) can help organizations design accessible information that can be tailored for all.
The format and accessibility of Alerts
In Japan the alarm was raised through sirens and loudspeakers which is why so many deaf people died. Alternative visual or tactile alerts are vital such text messages, sign language or text on TV and text alerts on FM radio and digital audio text screens are all valuable. A multi-modal approach to communication is fundamental to reaching every member of a community. Such a person may have a low level of literacy, and it is by understanding the complexity of individuals that we will produce solutions that are effective for everyone. At Mada we can help design such communications.
The speed and effectiveness of evacuation
Once an alert has been issued, first responses need to be made immediately. Where that action involves evacuation, it may well need the support of neighbors and friends to be effective. Neighbors may need to be reminded that someone needs special assistance by simply placing a flashing beacon in a window. Where someone has been missed, there has to be a reliable means of alerting the authorities to a need for aid. At Mada we recognize there is an opportunity to create a very simple application that would inform the authorities of the location and disability of an individual and which would request immediate assistance. This is research we will be undertaking in the coming months.
The availability of accessible shelter and support for technologies
Once evacuated, the accessibility and modifications of shelters is a major factor in reducing the suffering of people with a disability. This requires shelters to have considered access, i.e. ramps and handrails, information and signage, i.e. braille and symbols and internal communications, i.e. how someone is registered and recorded so resources are adequately shared and loved ones can find them.
There is a great deal to be learned from the tragedy in Japan and those representing disabled people in Qatar and of course disabled people themselves, all have an important role to play in reducing the impact of a disaster or emergency. It is widely accepted that a society accessible to persons with disabilities is one accessible to all and a fully inclusive society is at the heart of Qatar’s vision for the future. By listening to the voices of survivors and the silence of those lost we learn that by planning and preparing we can save lives, reduce pain and increase the ability of everyone to recover from the next disaster.
David Banes CEO Mada (Qatar Assistive Technology Center)