Disaster-vulnerable groups and the reality they faced 1

Disaster-vulnerable groups refer to people who need special help in a disaster. These people have difficulty evacuating on their own and need support. Of course, this means they also need special consideration after evacuating. Although they might have high priority on temporary housing lists, there isn’t even a place for them in shelters. For example, there is no consideration for those handicapped people who may have difficulties using general toilets, and they are not given first priority for spaces that accommodate their special needs. So disabled victims couldn’t stay, but had to find places other than shelters or live in cars. Then, if they weren’t living in shelters, they might not receive supplies and such. It became a never-ending cycle, and that was really exhausting at the time.

Troubles at the evacuation center

The first problem we had was food. We were also afraid we could die of weakness as we were wet after being swallowed by the tsunami. There was a stove that saved us because we could get warm. Otherwise things would have been much worse.

Then, one of our disabled trainees needed to use the toilet. The area in front of the biology laboratory was the school yard and it was full of cars, so there was no place to go. I remember the school made a temporary place for us at the back of the gym.

Pretty soon the women needed to use the toilet too. We made a toilet and gave them privacy by using the desks and curtains in the classrooms and turning off the lights of the cars in the yard. But it was cold and there wasn’t much privacy, so they didn’t feel comfortable and couldn’t go even though they had the urge.

Heartless words

Kayoko: There were a lot of people in the region who didn’t know this was a place for people with disabilities. So they thought it was strange that only we (at Kujira no Shippo) were getting special treatment. If there was a problem with the toilets, or they found someone who wasn’t following the rules properly, they would say, “I bet the Kujira no Shippo people did this.”

We didn’t want our trainees to feel hurt hearing all these negative words, so we thought, well there just happen to be toilets in another one of our buildings. We talked about it and decided that although it would be hard for our disabled trainees to walk over there, we would have someone go with them at nighttime to use it. But as we were doing this, the people around us gradually started to understand them (the trainees).


What inspired that understanding?

Kayoko: It was inspired by the shelter meetings we had in the mornings with everyone to determine the rules for managing the building (as a shelter). We had decided to set rules because this was a place everyone was using together. Kujira no Shippo also participated. Our trainees expressed their willingness to clean and do what they could just like everyone else, and when they started working together with the non-disabled people, the prejudice and misunderstanding went away.

But people would say things like, “Oh, so you can talk normally.” It’s really a shock to hear something like that from people who know nothing about disabilities.

I realized a lot of people think people with disabilities can’t do anything in life without help.

For example, once the abled people realized that if you told our trainees to line up and wait their turn, they could wait in line with everyone else, they started asking us to help when they needed more hands to distribute the relief supplies that arrived. Sometimes our staff and trainees would pair up to help, and that helped some people to gradually understand. We were happy when those people started talking to us and gradually losing their prejudice.

Life at the evacuation center

Members of our group were worried not to bother each other in one sense, and I believe many of them hold their feelings.

There were situations people looked irritated as we all had to endure very inconvenient life. When we don’t have anything to do, we tend to withdraw and feel irritated.

There was a new initiative at the evacuation center to use water from school’s swimming pool for the bath rooms as we didn’t have water to flush. We relayed water in buckets from the swimming pool to the bath rooms and kept it there for flushing. Relaying water became a routine of life at the center. Our trainees had opportunity moving and using their body in this routine. We volunteered to clean the floor space we were using at the school as well. We wanted to have some kind of assigned tasks to do.

Persons in charge of the evacuation center were very helpful and considerate. While basic rule was for all the evacuees to stay in a gym except for the ones who were certified as being in need of care, we were offered separate room just after one night in the gym. They spared a classroom for us. With about 40 adults lying on the floor, the room was packed and without enough space to walk around. Still, it was really a relief for us. We would have felt much more pressured if we had to be with other evacuees and had to watch our group not to bother others. It was very helpful and we appreciated it very much.