Addressing the needs of people with disabilities in the event of emergencies and disasters: First manual in Braille for children with visual impairments

Jovana: "Children need to learn what to do in earthquakes and fires.”

Eight-year-old Jovana Trajcevska lives a long way from her family home in Resen, studying five days a week in Skopje at the Dimitar Vlahov State School for the Rehabilitation of Children with Visual Impairment.

From Monday to Friday she studies and sleeps in the capital. Now in her second year at the school, Jovana has already learnt all the letters, numbers and signs of the Braille alphabet well enough to read books in Braille and to solve serious maths assignments. As of next week, she will also start attending piano lessons. “She’s very talented at music,” says her teacher, “and her ambition is to do something connected with music.”

On Friday afternoons, Jovana’s mother travels to Skopje to take her daughter home for the weekend. There she says she spends her time playing with her little sister, her baby brother and her grandparents. “And don’t forget my pets!” she adds, “a cat, a dog…and five pigeons.” Her mother and father are very proud of Jovana’s bravery in adapting so well to sleeping so far away from home at such an early age.

Jovana’s parents first saw signs of their daughter’s visual impairment when she was only a baby. “We took her for extensive medical examinations here and in other countries,” they explain, “The diagnosis was extremely serious and by the time she was two years old she had to undergo surgery and have ocular prostheses in both her eyes. We had to resign ourselves to the fact that she would never have eyesight. But Jovana never let her condition stop her from learning about the world—always asking us and her grandparents so many questions.”

Jovana is one of 30 students at the Dimitar Vlahov State School for the Rehabilitation of Children with Visual Impairment. The school is leading the way in the country’s efforts to address the special needs of children with visual impairments.

UNDP has been working with the Dimitar Vlahov School on additional measures to help reduce the risks and negative effects of disasters. Together with the Crisis Management Centre and the Ministry of Education, UNDP and the school have produced the country’s first manual for children in Braille on how to stay safe in case of earthquakes, fires, floods and other natural disasters.

“One of the areas we’re working on now,” says the school’s director Goranco Jakimov, “is the special needs of the visually impaired when it comes to emergencies and natural disasters. We have already developed evacuation maps in Braille and we’ve installed a sound system to provide an early warning for the children if there is an emergency. Next year, as soon as the weather gets warmer, a training drill will be organized with the help of UNDP on how to act in case of emergencies.”

Integrating the needs of people with visual impairments within the processes of planning and preparing for emergencies can significantly reduce their vulnerability.

“Measures like the new manual in Braille and the tactile evacuation maps can also greatly increase the effectiveness of Government response and recovery efforts,” explains Stevko Stefanoski from the Crisis Management Centre, adding that “We are doing our best to make sure these needs are incorporated within all of our national disaster risk-management plans.”

Rehabilitation and reconstruction efforts must not only be inclusive and responsive to the needs of all people, including persons with disabilities, but should include the participation of persons with disabilities, to ensure that their needs and rights are respected. “Women and children with disabilities are a particularly vulnerable group whose needs should be included at all stages of prevention and recovery,” says UNDP Project Manager Vasko Popovski.

This manual was produced as part of UNDP’s wider project for Disaster Risk Reduction, which has helped to provide training in dealing with earthquakes and fires for over 18,000 students in the past years.

Jovana says the new manual is the next thing on her reading list. “Children need to learn what to do in earthquakes and fires,” she says, “You feel safer—you are safer—if you know the best thing to do when they happen.”


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