Are disabled people prepared?

Those who are most likely to be compromised, injured or killed during a disaster disabled people are also the most likely to be the least prepared for such a possibility.

BY TRAVIS DUNN | BALTIMORE | June 4, 2003



"An unfortunate, tragic event brought about wider community awareness."

—Elizabeth Davis


Disasters do not discriminate. Those who are most likely to be compromised, injured or killed during a disaster disabled people are also the most likely to be the least prepared for such a possibility.

This finding is not new it was one of the major conclusions of a Harris survey commissioned by the National Organization on the Disabled (NOD), shortly after Sept. 11. But the survey has serious implications about how emergency preparation needs to change in order to accommodate the needs of the disabled.

"The very people who most need to be prepared during an emergency, were in fact less ready should disaster strike," according to a statement posted on the NOD Web site.

"People with disabilities would be the most vulnerable in future terrorist attacks but equally important, with tens of thousands of manmade and natural disasters in our country each year, preparation, is always an imperative."

According to the survey:

-- 58 percent of people with disabilities say they do not know whom to contact about emergency plans for their community in the event of a terrorist attack or other crisis.

-- 61 percent say that they have not made plans to quickly and safely evacuate their home.

-- Among those who are employed full or part time, 50 percent say no plans have been made to safely evacuate their workplace.

All these percentages are higher than for those without disabilities.

The NOD realized it needed to take on this problem before the results of the survey even came out.

"We became inundated from calls" after Sept. 11, said Elizabeth Davis, director of the NOD's Emergency Preparedness Initiative (EPI). "So it was from that recognized desired and need for information that a program in and of itself was merited in this area. An unfortunate, tragic event brought about wider community awareness."

Since that time, EPI has accomplished several tasks related to these goals, Davis said, including the preparation and publication of an informative brochure, Guide on the Special Needs of People with Disabilities for Emergency Managers, Planners and Responders, which can be downloaded at the NOD Web site.

The EPI's main goal is twofold: first, to educate emergency and relief workers about the special, and heterogeneous, needs of the disabled, and, second, to bring the disabled to the table with first responders.

In educating first responders, Davis said that it is important for them to realize that, when working with the disabled, they are not dealing with a uniform group of people.

"Individuals with disabilities are as diverse as any other category in the population," she said. "Disability crosses all racial and economic categories and gender differences."

Understanding that certain exceptions need to be made for the disabled is also paramount. For example, some disabled people may need to bring along a guide dog or certain medicines during an evacuation, even though standing order may be to leave these things behind.

On the other hand, the EPI is also trying to make disabled people active participants in disaster planning, "to really encourage members of the disabled community to see that they have skills, that they have survival skills, that they have creative problem skills."

"It's an opportunity to highlight that there are skills out there that can be brought to the emergency management table," Davis said. "What we're looking to do is be a matchmaker if you will, to intro the two sides to each other and then back out of the way."

Faith-based groups take initiative

In response to findings from NOD and other agencies, Church World Service (CWS) and the United Church of Christ have both been particularly active on this issue.

A CWS task force formed for this purpose. Three people took part: Linda Reed-Brown, associate director for domestic response for CWS; Johanna Olson with Lutheran Disaster Response and Florence Coppola, who coordinates domestic disaster response for the United Church of Christ/Wider Church Ministries. Their work led to the publication of a brochure, Reed-Brown said.

"We culminated all that by producing a brochure that is primarily designed to give churches the links and the information," Reed-Brown said.

Many of the task force's goals are similar with those of NOD: bringing together first responders and the disabled.

In particular, the CWS task force hopes to influence both the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the American Red Cross "to be more aware and more inclusive of persons with disabilities."

"We're probably not going to be able to reach a firefighter who is trying to rescue someone from a boat," Reed-Brown said. "What we can do is keep the issues on a national level."

Rita Fiero, a volunteer with the United Church of Christ, is trying to spread the word as much as possible.

Fiero, disabled herself (from a spinal injury in a car accident), recently addressed a seminar at the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster conference in North Dakota.

Fiero's main concern is making sure first responders have proper training in order to work with the disabled.

"There are such holes in the delivery around the response in disaster to people with disabilities," she said. "Everyone's attitude is, 'Somebody else is doing that kind of education.' Everyone thinks they know everything about disabilities, so why should they attend a workshop? What we don't have is the two sides talking to each other."

In seminars with emergency workers, Fiero has seen where the gaps in practical knowledge are.

When she asked a class how a person on a respirator should be evacuated, the only response she got was, "I never thought about that."

It's not a new problem, she said. Her first personal experience was in the early 1990s, when she heard of a disabled man, who was evacuated from his home during a flood. He was forced to leave his life-saving medication behind. But after he was evacuated, workers realized they had a serious problem on their hands, because the medication was not easy to come by. Eventually they got it from a hospital in Pennsylvania.

All that trouble and worry could have been avoided, Fiero said, if the first responders had the training to know that the "leave everything behind" rule had a definite exception in this case.

"This is something that has haunted me," she said. "Knowing that stuff is not getting done - that nothing is getting to the people who need to know it the most."


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Related Links:

National Organization on the Disabled Web site

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