Saturday, September 17, 2011

In Japan, more help could have saved lives of disabled people from disasters, says former head of school for disabled kids

From The Mainichi Daily News in Japan:

FUKUSHIMA, Japan -- A former headmaster of a school for the disabled has examined conditions in which physically-impaired people survived or lost their lives when the March 11 earthquake and tsunami struck the region.

Masahiko Nakamura, 65, (pictured) who had served as head of Taira Yogo Gakko (Taira School for Handicapped Children) in Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture, from 2000 to 2003, interviewed 31 disabled people and their families in areas mainly along the Pacific coast hit hard by the tsunami in a bid to come to grips with the actual situations surrounding disabled people in times of calamities.

Of the people interviewed, there were those who had to rely on artificial respirators or wheelchairs. According to a survey conducted by the local municipalities, disabled people had a 30 percent higher rate of death than ordinary persons. "If only there was a little more help ... We want to put the lessons to good use for the future," said Nakamura, who currently heads a Braille library in Fukushima.

While trying to confirm the whereabouts of his former students, he started to think "why did those people who were happy with their humble way of living have to lose their lives." After starting his research, apart from his former students, he visited social workers to check on the situations surrounding a total of 31 disabled people in their teens to their 80s -- eight people with impaired vision, five people with impaired hearing, nine people with mental illnesses, three people with autism and six people in wheelchairs. Of those, three people with mental illnesses and two people in wheelchairs lost their lives. After hearing from their families, Nakamura said, "The tsunami was the cause of their deaths."

A man in his 30s in a wheelchair was swallowed by the tsunami while his relatives were on their way to rescue him. The man was carrying an artificial respirator weighing about 4.5 kilograms, but people in the neighborhood were not aware of the difficulty he always had, and therefore he apparently had a hard time trying to escape from the tsunami. A woman in her 60s in a wheelchair, who lived in Namie, lost her life to the tsunami at home while her husband was away. "There was no ramp for her to come down from the entrance about 40 centimeters high, and therefore she apparently was hit by the tsunami while she was at a loss," her husband said in tears.

A man in his teens with a mental illness, who lived in Soma, lost his life to the tsunami. According to his mother, he continued to stay in his room at home because his grandmother was removing roof tiles scattered on the road. Nakamura said, "People with mild mental illnesses can go shopping by themselves, but I painfully learned how difficult it is for them to make their own decisions to escape in times of disasters."

In collaboration with the prefectural social welfare council, Nakamura checked the number of disabled people killed in the disasters in 10 municipalities along the Pacific coast in Fukushima Prefecture as of the end of June. He also checked the kinds of disabilities they had.

As of last October, there were a total of 527,639 people in the 10 municipalities, and 1,673 people died in the disasters. There were 25,577 holders of physical disability certificates as of April 2010, and 102 of them lost their lives to the disasters. The death rate for the disabled is 0.40 percent, 1.3 times the rate for non-holders of the certificates which stood at 0.31 percent. Of the 102 people killed, 60 were physically disabled, 26 had internal impediments such as heart, kidney, or respiratory ailments, 10 had impaired vision, and six had impaired hearing. In addition, nine people with mental illnesses and seven people with psychiatric disabilities lost their lives to the disasters.

Nakamura is continuing with his research. "We urgently need to have a support system that includes keeping in touch with families that have disabled people," he said. "We have to repeatedly tell disabled people even from their childhood that 'If an earthquake hits while you are near the ocean, tsunami will come. You must flee to higher ground,'" he added. Nakamura said he would compile the research results and share them with local governments and schools.