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'Can we get the word out?'

With the nation riveted on Ivan's track toward Florida, an initiative is quietly coming together hundreds of miles away that could help persons with disabilities better prepare for disasters.

BY SUSAN KIM | BALTIMORE | September 10, 2004

"That awareness only happens when real people are talking."

—JoAnne Knapp

With the nation riveted on Ivan's track toward Florida, an initiative is quietly coming together hundreds of miles away that could help persons with disabilities better prepare for disasters.

JoAnne Knapp, Maryland's emergency preparedness coordinator for individuals with disabilities, has found plenty of information about being prepared - but nobody is talking about it. "How can we get the word out about being prepared?" she wondered.

Knapp, with a local vision she aims to expand, is planning several regional conferences for persons with disabilities. The results? A peer-to-peer network through which persons with disabilities involved in disasters help each other prepare, evacuate and respond.

And a peer-to-peer discussion among persons with disabilities could mean a lot more than slick brochures on preparedness, theorized Knapp.

Her biggest preparedness tip? "If you're elderly, disabled or living alone, you might want to have two or three neighbors check in on you," she said.

It sounds simple, and it's printed in thousands of places across the country - but it's simply not happening. People aren't carrying it out - but not because there's any lack of print literature and online information. It's because people aren't talking face-to-face about it, said Knapp.

And talking is simply the biggest need, agreed the Rev. Peggy Johnson, who described her United Methodist congregation in Baltimore as "largely deaf or hearing impaired."

After the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks – which occurred on a Tuesday – some members of her congregation were still confused five days later. “They came to church asking 'Did this really happen - or was it just on TV?' "

Persons with disabilities want to hear about preparedness and response from someone they trust – and that often means from their peers, added Johnson. “You have to communicate in a way a person understands. You can’t just hand them a brochure.”

There are simple ideas that people can share, said Knapp, "like carrying a communication card in your wallet that has your neighbors' phone numbers, and the phone numbers of people out of town to reach. If you're going to be in a shelter, and phone reception in your local area is lousy, you have to figure out a way to communicate with your family members."

Through training conferences that will be offered in the coming year, Knapp will help form a peer-to-peer network of persons with disabilities. "We will have special workshops for sensory disabilities, cognitive disabilities, and so on," she said.

The idea is to brainstorm in a collegial way about ideas to prepare - and about unique needs of disabled people. "I mean, I've had employers say 'Oh, I didn't realize I need to put a strobe light around my office buildings in addition to having an alarm system.'

"That awareness only happens when real people are talking," she said. "People get these disaster checklists and they say, 'Okay, I'm done.' But that becomes a bookshelf document. They need to talk about what you should expect.”

But right now there's precious little dialogue, said Knapp. “There's just information sitting on shelves. We have to get more people involved. And the way to do that is have disabled people help each other and help themselves."

Other states are beginning such initiatives as well, she said, and whatever it's called - the point is to get local persons with disabilities talking to each other about preparedness, instead of blanketing them with information, or talking at them, or talking around them. "Your local people are where it's at. Please get people with disabilities involved in the planning."

According to the National Organization on Disability (NOD), there are 54 million men, women and children who have disabilities that impact their hearing, vision and mobility, and others with mental and emotional disabilities.

Church World Service (CWS), on its emergency response program Web site, features a “Disaster and Disability” section that offers guidance on developing a church disaster plan for persons with disabilities.

Working with the NOD and other agencies, CWS, United Church of Christ, Lutheran Disaster Response, and other faith-based response groups have been actively developing ways to better prepare persons with disabilities.

And considering the thousands of people in special needs shelters in Florida alone during the past three weeks, Knapp pointed out now is a great time for everybody - across the nation - to ask: 'Hey, how are you going to get at this?'

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Church World Service "Disaster and Disability" resources

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