How can Chennai make flood planning disability-inclusive? Community members speak

Persons with disabilities urge for community involvement and support while planning flood response, appointing referral persons who are familiar with the locality, and more.
Two persons with disability riding in a wheelchair covering themselves under a blue sheet in rain
Two persons with disability riding in a wheelchair covering themselves under a blue sheet in rain
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Forty-year-old Selvam had no choice but to leave his house and move to a safer place on November 7, 2021 after Chennai’s KK Nagar was flooded after heavy rains in the city between November 6 and 11. Selvam lives with a locomotor disability and uses a wheelchair. During the Chennai rains, he and his family – including his wife and two daughters – had to find refuge at a church in MGR Nagar.

Selvam sells cleaning products from a makeshift shop at Kamaraj Salai, earning a meagre sum of Rs 300 per day. “For a person with disability, traveling in general is a struggle, but during rains, the process becomes even more tiresome and dangerous. I, however, had no choice but to move out of my house as walls and floors started seeping due to water logging.”

Selvam used his accessible scooter to shift his family to the church, riding on water logged roads with potholes. “We returned home only a couple of days ago, but it is raining again,” says a worried Selvam.

That India lacks accessible infrastructure is well known, making day-to-day lives of persons with disabilities challenging. However, during situations like floods and heavy rains, this lack of infrastructure, combined with the disadvantaged socio-economic positions of many persons with disabilities, puts their lives and wellbeing in even more danger.

Thirty-three-year-old Sathish, who works at a public sector bank in Medavakkam, points out how lack of disability-friendly infrastructure was a letdown during rains. “I stay in Gowrivakkam and I largely use my electric wheelchair for traveling. Because of water logging on roads, there is always a fear of going outside. Adding to the fear are the potholes, which can often lead to fatal mishaps,” says Sathish, who also lives with cerebral palsy, which is caused by abnormal development of the brain before birth and can result in loss of control in the limbs.

“More than my locomotor disability, flooding and rains seems to restrict my movement these days. I have to think twice before venturing out because of water logging, road conditions, no proper shelter for while boarding and deboarding public transports – overall the city becomes even less accessible for us in rains,” adds Sathish.

Appoint a ‘referral person’ from community

Smitha Sadasivan, a member of Tamil Nadu Disability Rights Alliance urges that the need of the hour is a community support structure and appointing a referral person, who is also a person with disability from that community, for coordinating during emergencies including floods.

“It is important to appoint a referral person from the community who can collect the details of each person with disability in a particular locality and hold frequent meetings with them. The Greater Chennai Corporation (GCC), with the Commissionerate, should consider this initiative,” says Smitha, who lives with multiple sclerosis, which affects an individual’s central nervous system resulting in disruption of communication between the brain and parts of the body. “This engagement will reap benefits in the long run. The community will help themselves, reducing the chances of someone being left out during emergencies,” she adds.

Alternative communication for persons with disabilities

To dispense information to people with disabilities during rainfall, the Commissionerate for Welfare of the Differently Abled, on November 8, released an awareness video on social media. The video was in sign language, and urged those living with disabilities to carry assistive devices, documents and medicines with them while evacuating. But activists say that this is not enough.

Videos do not work for everyone with disabilities, whose communication methods and needs vary. For instance, a person with hearing disabilities will need assistance from a person who knows lip reading and Indian sign language. Likewise, a child on the autism spectrum, which is a developmental disability, might need communication charts and images to communicate more effectively than verbal cues. “However, currently, Indian sign language is not even used as extensively as it should be in Tamil Nadu. This calls for diverse SOPs suitable for different disabilities at the earliest,” says K Raghuraman, an English professor at Nandanam Government Arts College, who has visual impairment.

A 30-year-old travel photographer, S Srivatsan, living in Anna Nagar urged the government to convey emergency news in videos at a larger scale, apart from written format.

“Those like me, who live with hearing impairment, understand videos better than text, hence news channels should also have Indian sign language. I cannot call the Electricity Board office to enquire about power outages. In those situations, I have to run for help in the rain. Hence mechanisms such as chats, SMS should be adopted for us too,” Srivatsan says.

In a text conversation with TNM, Srivatsan also confirmed that currently there is no guide on crisis management or communication, relocation and relief from the GCC or Commissionerate for persons with disabilities. “Having a representative in each area who will have the data of each person with disability will solve many issues for us,” he adds.

Further, there needs to be sensitivity towards persons with disabilities and their needs among rescue personnel too. “It is high time that disability awareness videos are played on TV and radio to instil sensitivity among everyone. Additionally, evacuation personnel like SDRF must be sensitised on how to help people with disabilities and use their assistive devices. Importantly, one member from the community should be included to address personnel on ground about this,” Smitha adds.

The Commissionerate has a helpline number 18004250111 for those living with disabilities to call.

Facilitating community involvement, accessible relief

Raghuraman, said that it is imperative for GCC to roll out Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) along with the Commissionerate for different types of disabilities, which will act as a guide during natural disasters.

To better communicate to persons with disabilities, Raghuraman explains that mapping every person living with disabilities in each locality and their needs is the key to helping them during the disaster or otherwise.

“If mapping is done in each area, we can get help to them within the community. I cannot wait for the Commissionerate or GCC officials to address my issues all the time. Hence a pre-designated referral person or volunteer can help me navigate the situation better,” adds Raghuraman.

Explaining how the relief shelters can be made disabled-friendly, Smitha says every building that the district administration which is earmarked as a relief shelter must be checked for accessibility beforehand. “All buildings must be made disabled-friendly, which is far from the reality now. There have been instances where a wheelchair could not enter the toilet. Such a situation causes great difficulty to those with disabilities in relief camps. All this needs immediate attention,” Smitha adds.

Government response

TNM also contacted government officials on the matter. Johny Tom Varghese, Director at the Commissionerate for Welfare of Differently Abled, Tamil Nadu, says, “There are nodal NGOs in each zone that have been appointed to help us with COVID-19 vaccination and they will continue to help us during rains and floods also.”

Varghese adds that the GCC already has an established flood and disaster management protocol, to which a video call facility has been added as per request. “An international guidelines advisory on disaster management for persons with disabilities has been sent to GCC, all district collectors and the Commissioner of Revenue Administration (CRA) to follow. Besides this, we actively communicate through social media,” he says.

Varghese also says he is open to the community’s suggestion of appointing a referral person from the community. “The GCC already has details of all persons with disability zone-wise and first responders. Appointing a person with disability in the first responders’ team is something that can be done by GCC, and the Commissionerate will also suggest it.”

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