We have ignored the plight of persons with disabilities
What you need to know:
- What happens to someone with mental disability when an emergency evacuation has to be done?
- What happens to someone who is physical disabled when violence happens?
The media is reporting drought and starvation in most parts of the country. But there are warnings that should the rains come, they might also lead to disaster. Bandits have attacked villages in parts of northern Kenya and displaced hundreds of families.
Children in school have been forced to leave their homes and live in new places. They have had to abandon school altogether or do exams in new schools. Such disaster is reported in the media as mere news. For the viewer or listener removed from the place where such tragedy has happened, it is not possible to imagine or understand the effect of the catastrophe on individuals or communities.
Yet, disasters cause a lot of suffering to individuals. For instance, physical displacement leads to social and cultural dislocation, economic disruption and mental anguish. Bodily harm and sometimes death are inevitable. For the able-bodied, they may escape with little or no injury even though they may carry metal scars from the disaster that they are avoiding. But what happens to persons with disabilities?
What happens to someone with mental disability when an emergency evacuation has to be done? What happens to someone who is physical disabled when violence happens? Do we stop to think about what happens to persons with visual impairment in case there is a riot or even need to evacuate a building when there is an emergency?
These are the questions that Phitalis Were Masakhwe poses in his book, The Well-Being of Persons with Disabilities during Disasters: A Humanitarian Policy Framework Perspective (Utafiti Foundation, 2021).
The government of Kenya and the county governments have policies that spell out how to handle persons with disabilities in emergency and disaster situations. These policies definitely draw inspiration from the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability.
Implementation of policies
But are such policies ever implemented? Do the counties, for instance, have the capacity to implement these policies? Are county governments even aware of the number of persons with disabilities in their jurisdiction?
In The Well-Being of Persons with Disabilities during Disasters, Masakhwe study, which focused on Kisumu County, reveals a number of issues around the preparedness of government officials and the society in general in disaster situations, especially when it concerns persons with disability. He shows that even in everyday situations, where there is no disaster, most public places in Kenya are not prepared to enable persons with disability to enjoy what able-bodied Kenyans take for granted.
Thus, most public buildings still don’t have ramps for wheelchairs; some actually don’t have working lifts to upper floors; there are hardly disability-friendly toilets; seminars can be held without a sign language interpreter; who cares for persons who are deaf? These are challenges that persons with disabilities endure every day in church, school, at the marketplace, in hospitals, everywhere. In fact, it only takes a deaf person to appear at a function for there to be a pandemonium.
These difficulties suggest the unpreparedness of the entire society to take care of persons with disabilities in case a disaster happens. The Well-Being of Persons with Disabilities during Disasters is an addition to the many voices that have kept calling for effective implementation of policies that would enable persons with disabilities to enjoy everyday life without hindrance.
Masakhwe argues that even the “national humanitarian policy such as the National Disability Policy and the Disability Act … need to be reviewed to indicate clearly what is considered as humanitarian situation” (sic). He notes that the policy “does not indicate the type of disasters affecting persons with disabilities.”
But even if the existing policies were to be reviewed and made more responsive, one imagines that their implementation would still face the same old difficulties. Bureaucracy alone is incapable, in its present form, to address the problems that afflict persons with disability. Humanitarian organizations – local and foreign – may only offer limited support. Charitable individuals, where they exist, can only do so much as their resources and will allow.
Existing policy framework
I order to fully support the wellbeing of persons with disability, there needs to be public reeducation on disability. All Kenyans need to be taught about disability. The old mantra that disability is not inability needs to be taught to all and sundry. The public needs to be retrained to appreciate that persons with disability are not abnormal or inadequate in any way.
This education needs to run from home to nursery school to primary, secondary, college, workplace, public places, back home. It needs to be informative and practical. For instance, let children know from early on what cause visual impairment and how to treat or manage it, and how to live with a person who is blind. They should know that someone can be born with disability or become disabled due to an accident. Consequently they should be taught about how to care for the wellbeing of the disabled.
But we need more social and cultural education about people with disabilities. We need to discard attitudes and beliefs that have led to the marginalization, abandonment or even killing of persons with disability. The society needs to build institutions and encourage practices that would prioritize the wellbeing of the disabled when disaster happens. Often such preparedness is not about money. It is about the will to respond appropriately, on time, effectively and sustainably.
As politicians crisscross the country and counties looking for votes to form the next government, it is not enough to promise to nominate persons with disability to public offices. Setting aside a fund for persons with disability is fine but inadequate to address the challenges they face daily.
The Well-Being of Persons with Disabilities during Disasters: A Humanitarian Policy Framework Perspective is an invitation to politicians and political parties to seriously consider reviewing the existing policy framework and offer new thinking in their manifestos, in the hope that such ideas will be translated into better policies in the next government.
The writer teaches literature and performing arts at the University of Nairobi. [email protected]