When disaster or conflict strikes who is “left behind”? 

Poignant and heart rending stories were shared of those left behind, excluded, ignored, and in some cases, left to die in disasters we have witnessed in India recently like floods, landslides, earthquakes, ethnic and political conflicts and the COVID pandemic.
 
In most of these instances it is  persons with disabilities who are left behind. And in most emergency responses these are the people whose needs are most invisible and who are discriminated and excluded in the relief and recovery processes as well.
 
It is in this backdrop that Engage Disability was privileged and humbled to be a part of a three-day consultation (19-21 December 2023) jointly organised by India Peace Center Nagpur,  WCC – EDAN (Ecumenical Disability Advocates Network), and NCCI IDEA on “Disability, Conflict, and the Response of Faith Communities in India.” 
 
The consultation brought together representatives of Church related relief agencies, church representatives with disabilities or representing disability ministries of their churches, theological students including those with disabilities and a good number of friends from the deaf Church Nagpur. For the first time we witnessed a consultation where we had fifty percent participation of people with disabilities! 
 
 
This was probably the first time in ecumenical/Christian circles globally that this neglected topic was being discussed. It was a ground breaking workshop of listening to stories of those affected by diverse disasters, emergencies, and conflicts and grappling with the enormous challenges faced by people with disabilities in times of disaster and conflict and acknowledging with shame and sadness how they are mostly left behind. 
 
The consultation began with a praise and worship song by Pastor Rishikesh of the Deaf Church, Nagpur in ISL, that was interpreted to “the rest of us 50% illiterates” in the room by the sign  language interpreter Ms Madhuriya who accompanied us throughout the consultation to enable us to listen to inputs from our friends with hearing impairments from the Deaf Church in Nagpur. 
 
The consultation had two panel sessions that made for somber listening to those who had experienced being left behind, neglected or forgotten during conflicts and disasters: Panel one on Breaking Barriers: Empowering Mobility for all  touched upon physical disabilities and access barriers; Panel two on Healing Wounds Unseen: Nurturing Mental Well-being Amidst Conflict highlighted the psychological trauma and mental health issues experienced in times of disaster and conflict. 
 
Three hybrid presentations over zoom on challenges for persons with disabilities during conflict and disaster from the context of North East India, and from the context of the Chennai Floods from the women with disabilities perspective, further deepened and brought home the scale and complexity of the problems and issues under consideration. 
 
With inputs from those in government organisations related to disability (CRC Nagpur), civil society organisations working with the elderly (Active Elderly) and disabled peoples organisations (Nagaland State Disability Forum), and faith based NGOs in the thick of Disaster Risk Reduction and Management (CARD & LWSIT), it was an intense time of processing and trying to think through together as diverse stakeholders how to strengthen the response of faith communities to be intentional to the needs of persons with diverse disabilities in times of conflict, emergencies and disasters. 
 
Group work by participants to deliberate upon the unique challenges faced by those with visual and hearing impairment, and those with physical and intellectual disabilities, was informed by inputs from church based relief agencies on inclusive disaster preparedness and response.
 
The workshop also came up with draft guidelines for Churches, institutions related to churches, and church related relief agencies on emergency preparedness and recovery that could uniquely cater to the needs of persons with diverse disabilities in the context of emergencies and conflicts. These guidelines will be sharpened and finalised for circulation to churches through NCCI. 
 
Engage Disability is thankful to the NCCI team of Rev Ribin John⁩, (Executive Secretary, Ecumenical Fora – NCCI)  Rev Dr Devajothi Kumar (Executive Secretary of NEFGSD & Core Group Member of NCCI – IDEA), and Rev Dr Asir Ebenezer, General Secretary of NCCI, as well as Mr Michael Angelious, Director of India Peace Center for conceptualising this important and timely consultation and for creating the space to bring together an appropriate group of people to enrich the deliberations.  
 
It was gratifying to see many ED partners and Associates contributing in this workshop from the hubs in Nagpur (Ms. Aradhana, of CNI SSA), Dimapur (Ms Ela of Prodigals Home, Dimapur, and Ms. Ashe Kiba, General Secretary of the Nagaland State Disability Forum), Lamka (Mr Pauzagin, Director of Center for Community Initiative and Mr. Doulallem Neihisial),  Chittoor (Ps Theo Steaphens), and Chennai (Dr Aiswarya Rao).
 
Pastor Rishikesh who led the opening praise and worship song, also ended the consultation with the closing prayer in sign language committing all the work done into God’s hands and praying for all our hands to be strengthened in carrying this task forward. 

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