EDITORIAL: Improved system needed to assist disabled people in disasters
Many people with disabilities have been unable to enter crucially important evacuation shelters in areas hit hard by the recent succession of earthquakes in Kumamoto and other prefectures.
“I was told that people on wheelchairs are not allowed because the hall has bumps on the floor,” one of them said.
“I got no information from anywhere, so I spent nights in a car for a week,” said another.
“Welfare evacuation shelters” were supposed to be set up for people with disabilities and elderly people, who would find it difficult to live in evacuation shelters for the general public.
Welfare evacuation shelters refer to schools, welfare facilities and other institutions that have signed agreements with municipal governments in preparation for a possible disaster.
But the system failed in the face of the real earthquake disaster.
Some 35,000 people in Kumamoto, the capital of Kumamoto Prefecture, are registered as “persons requiring support,” who were expected to need help in evacuating from a disaster.
While 176 institutions had signed agreements to serve as welfare evacuation shelters, the number of institutions that actually accepted people in need was slow to grow.
Some of the institutions were short-staffed because care providers became quake victims themselves. Some of the buildings were destroyed, and water supply was cut.
After volunteer workers were recruited, 33 welfare evacuation shelters were opened by April 22. But only 80-odd people have entered those shelters. Officials at one shelter have complained that all they can do is to provide space because they cannot afford to provide assistance.
People with disabilities and others who remain out of welfare evacuation shelters may face serious difficulties from the prolonged consequences of the earthquake disaster. Checking for their safety has turned out to be more difficult than initially expected.
Given the situation, Kumamoto Gakuen University has been drawing attention for its activities. The university in Kumamoto city has made its presence felt by accepting up to 60 or so people who are disabled or elderly.
Initially, the university only had its athletic field designated as a wide-area evacuation ground. As local residents began to assemble on its campus amid the succession of powerful earthquakes, however, the university decided to let local inhabitants use four of its classrooms.
It also designated a grand hall in one of its buildings for exclusive use by "persons requiring support." University officials have arranged a framework, whereby certified care workers with connections to the university and volunteering students are available 24 hours a day to watch those evacuees who require support.
The law on the elimination of disability discrimination, which took effect this month, says public institutions are obliged to “provide reasonable accommodation.” They are supposed to respond, to a reasonable extent, to the requests of disabled people to eliminate social barriers.
Kumamoto Gakuen University’s undertaking is a pioneering attempt at fleshing out the spirit of that law.
Two professors at the university, who were involved in opening the evacuation shelter, have worked with groups of disabled people and their supporters to set up a “center for people with disabilities in disaster areas.”
Instead of bringing disabled people together in a single evacuation shelter, the center will serve as a hub for providing appropriate information to people with disabilities in different areas, and will continue to give them necessary support until they can return to their previous lifestyles.
Close to 80,000 people continue to live in evacuation following the Kumamoto earthquakes. And it is never easy for people with disabilities to live the same way as people without disabilities.
In normal times, we should prepare mechanisms, for example, to use the list of “persons requiring support” to determine their safety status in emergencies and to allow welfare institutions to dispatch staff members to each other on a broader regional scale.
Doing so would be one way to prepare for the next disaster, which could hit any part of Japan.