When all children, including children with disabilities, are prepared for disasters

UNICEF worked with the Indonesian Government and other partners to provide urgent assistance to the most vulnerable children.

Lely Djuhari - UNICEF Communication Specialist
Mega & Chila, children with disabilities in UNICEF tent
21 February 2019

My first week almost felt like a déjà vu. I had returned to my home country to support the emergency response after a major earthquake and tsunami struck Indonesia’s Central Sulawesi on 28 September.

My first job for UNICEF some 14 years ago was to support the Indian ocean tsunami response in Aceh Province on the northern tip of Sumatra Island. The scenes that I saw in 2004 and now were sickeningly familiar: miles of shoreline flattened and denuded with only one or two trees or cement foundations that escaped the sledgehammer strength of the tsunami.

But the scene on one Tuesday morning was different.

I had travelled to a school, which had received a UNICEF school tent. Though their school building was not totally levelled, it looked precarious, as if it will crash down at any given moment. I spent a whole morning interacting with an amazing group of people from Sekolah Luar Biasa Marawola – a school for children with disabilities – some had visual impairments, hearing and learning disabilities.

The students had clapped their hands in tune, played games and quizzes, and shared stories of what had happened to them in the past weeks. For children with or without disabilities, going back in school is one of the most important steps in restoring normalcy to a community.

Silvana Mega Sari Longe, 17, smiled as she used signed language to say how glad she was to meet her friend Jessica Zefanya Tania.

“The next step would have been the drill. Mega may not hear the siren or her friends who are blind may not be able to see the evacuation path,” he added.

“I like learning sewing and learning on how to become make-up artist,” she said.  She added that she is happy to come back to school to meet her friends even if it was only for one or two hours every day.

After a couple of hours, she became more at ease with me. Soon she was teaching me the Indonesian sign language for “friend”.

Their School Principal Jaya said it had been more than five years since he taught classes for children with hearing disabilities but it was now all hands-on deck. Though all had survived, many were still busy trying to find out where other members of their family were.

Pak Jaya told me that he had been organizing an emergency preparedness drill which was to take place on 5 October. Unfortunately, the earthquake struck a week earlier.

“In the middle of September, I had invited about 100 people – members of the community, our students, teachers, their parents and a nearby school to come and talk about the importance of disaster preparedness. Particularly when the students in my school have disabilities, they need to be supported by others.” he said.

“The next step would have been the drill. Mega may not hear the siren or her friends who are blind may not be able to see the evacuation path,” he added.

His words struck a chord with me. After two years as Communication Chief in Aceh Province, I had left Indonesia to work in other countries to work in many disaster and conflict zones. One of the most rewarding areas for me was disaster risk preparedness: helping schools with their emergency preparedness, how they practiced the drills so that the theory became a reflex action when repeated again and again.

Among the groups most vulnerable to disaster are people with disabilities. It is estimated that one billion people (equal to 15 per cent of the global population) have disabilities and most of them live in the developing world where they suffer from extreme poverty and developmental exclusion.

When it comes to disaster risk reduction, children with disabilities are often left behind and their capacities are often underestimated – they are more likely to be adversely affected by hazards than persons without disabilities. It was so rare to hear of inclusive disaster risk reduction.

I had also worked on inclusive education in Eastern Europe and Central Asia and was keen to find out how UNICEF in Indonesia had progressed on this area. One of the programme supported by UNICEF Indonesia was in five provinces including in South and West Sulawesi. It uses sports to promote inclusion and change the way children with disabilities are perceived and valued in their communities. 

Margarina Yasinta, a teacher at a school from children with disabilities.
Margarina Yasinta, a teacher at a school from children with disabilities, leads her students to sing an uplifting song “At a school tent, we are joyful and wherever we study we are happy.” UNICEF has already sent a first batch of 200 ‘schools in a tent’, 200 ‘school in a box’ kits and 50 Early Childhood Education kits. UNICEF was the first UN agency to reach the affected populations of Central Sulawesi with essential emergency supplies.

Through sport activities, children with and without disabilities, reach a greater understanding of how to respect each other, how to value effort, teamwork, humility, ambition, and tolerance. Seeing the child first before the disabilities, is one of the mantras.

It was so gratifying to hear that the authorities in Central Sulawesi is continuing to promote inclusive education but also on disaster risk reduction.

Central Sulawesi Education Official Murniarni Nongtji is one of the champions. She was one of the driving force of why Central Sulawesi received budget and the mandate from the Central Government to conduct disaster risk reduction programmes in schools for children with disabilities.

“I’ll continue the work to make sure that local schools are welcoming of children with disabilities. I want to see all schools prepare so that children - with or without disabilities - can practice and learn what to do before disaster strikes,” she said.

For the students of Sekolah Luar Biasa Marawola, their disaster came earlier. But they will continue with preparations to have their drills in the next couple of months.  Making disaster risk reduction more inclusive for everyone is crucial because disaster threatens every life without exceptions, including children with disabilities.