Floods turned out to be a great deal harder for people with disabilities

The floods emphasised the need to include the differently abled in strategy for disaster management.

December 19, 2015 02:00 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:05 pm IST - CHENNAI:

The floods emphasised the need to include the differently abled in strategy for disaster management. —PHOTO: R.RAGHU

The floods emphasised the need to include the differently abled in strategy for disaster management. —PHOTO: R.RAGHU

The lack of warning of the impending floods in Chennai made it especially difficult for people with disabilities, who were left to fend for themselves. While some needed rescuing, others lost essential implements like hearing aids, crutches and calipers, leaving them more vulnerable than ever before.

The disaster, however, did bring to the fore incredible stories of courage and grit, where ordinary citizens became heroes as they helped save lives.

One such story is that of physically challenged teacher K.S. Mariappan, who rescued four mentally challenged students from a special school as water gushed into the campus.

December 1 seemed like just another rainy night to the students at the Annai Special School, located on the banks of the Adyar river in Saidapet. The inmates had retired to bed after dinner, as had Mariappan, who also lived on the school premises.

Around 9 p.m., Pratap, one of the students who noticed the water seeping into the school, rushed to Mr. Mariappan’s quarters to wake him up.

Jolted into action, Mr. Mariappan took a call to move the students out of the school to the home of a teacher who lived a kilometre away. By the time they had collected a few essentials and started out of the school on Mr. Mariappan’s retro-fitted bike, the water in the school campus was ankle-deep. Since he suffers from polio, and depends on his crutches to move about, the swirling waters posed a huge challenge for Mr. Marippan, especially as he had to escort others to safety.

“To reach the house, we walked around half a kilometre. Walking through the flooded streets on my crutches meant that the progress was slow, and I had to accompany each student individually,” he said.

After he escorted the last student, Subhash, to safety, Mr. Marippan went back to his bike to collect the certificates and other essentials that he had managed to save from the water. “By this time the flood waters had reached my chest, and I could no longer walk through the swirling waters. I somehow managed to hold on to my crutches, but I had to be carried by bystanders to prevent me from being washed away,” he explains.

For the next three days, the group was forced to live with one of the teachers, with very little food, almost no medical care, and two special instructors to manage four distressed students.

A similarly harrowing situation played out in Nandambakkam, where the students of MGR School for Hearing Impaired were stranded on their campus, and were rescued by the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF). Many of the students lost their hearing aids and certificates.

Official figures state that 11.7 lakh persons with disabilities live in the State (around 1.7 per cent of the population). Estimates suggest that the Chennai metropolitan area alone has over 1.5 lakh disabled people. About two months ago, Vidyasagar, a city NGO working with the disabled, wrote a letter to the State Disaster Management Authority headed by the Chief Secretary, asking it to include the needs of people with disabilities when making a disaster management plan.

“The letter, which was sent in October, asked that persons with disabilities be included on the panel of the authority so that they could better explain the issues faced during natural disasters,” Smitha Sadasivam from Vidyasagar said. So far, there has been no response from the authority.

In a disturbing coincidence, the floods ravaged the city soon after the letter was sent, and seemed to only emphasise the need to include the disabled when coming up with a strategy for disaster management.

The case of Bhavana, who has cerebral palsy and lives in Sriram Nagar Colony with her parents and caregiver, is one example which highlights the crucial need for rescue teams to have adequate training to deal with people with special needs.

Bhavana is wheelchair-bound, and is unable to speak. When the river water started flooding her house, her caregiver managed to signal for a boat to rescue them. But when the team arrived, they realised that Bhavana would have to be transported in her wheelchair. One of the members of the rescue team says, “After trying several different methods, we had to ask her mother and her caregiver to wade through the water and help carry her on to the boat, since none of us had the training needed to undertake such an operation.” The fact that civilian-led rescue teams, even though they meant only good had no experience to anticipate such situations, compounded rescue efforts.

Amba Salelkar of Inclusive Planet Centre for Disability Law and Policy, emphasises the need for disaster management policies to ensure people who are visually or hearing impaired receive warning messages, and that people with mobility impediments are rescued. Only then will these policies be comprehensive, she says.

Trapped in the floods

While people in danger were rescued from their homes, a majority of the city remained indoors for a few days, with telephone lines failing, no electricity and the streets continuing to be flooded with water.

Many of the inmates of Vidyasagar were in a similar situation. With no electricity, and many of the people on wheelchairs, they were all forced to stay on the third floor of the school building. This dealt a blow especially to those who got around using electronic wheelchairs, which could not be charged, due to the prolonged blackout in the area. As a result, they were unable to even use the toilet without someone carrying them. Since there were very few caregivers, the situation became dire.

Medical care for people with special needs also became a problem during the floods. Ms. Sadasivam herself was stranded in her house with viral fever. “I have multiple sclerosis, and I am on immunosuppressants, which means that I cannot take many over-the-counter medicines,” she explains.

Attempts at rebuilding Now that much of the water has receded, the focus is on the city and its people trying to rebuild themselves. K. Manivasan, Commissioner, Disabilities, government of Tamil Nadu, says, “The government has ensured that all the camps have a special officer who is taking care of people with disabilities. Wherever possible, we are issuing certificates immediately.”

A disaster that was termed as a leveller, in terms of its effect on people of all social classes, was still a great deal harder on people with disabilities, who have, in the past, lobbied for better accessibility in the city. Activists and people with disabilities alike hope that the floods, disastrous as it was, would jolt the government into finally taking their cause more seriously.

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Read all articles in the 'Fix Our Cities' series

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