Impacts of Emergencies and Disasters on People with Disabilities _review

Communiity members of different ages, genders, abilities, and races are in downtown Disasterville near a grocery store, all wearing face masks. Some people are walking in groups and some are sitting down at tables talking. Two people have service animals.
It may not look like it but the people in this scene are socially distanced. There is an American Sign Language (ASL) Interpreter in this scene to sign for anyone who needs it.
Carrie, a Black woman in her 30s wears a facemask, has a white cane and a miniature horse that serves as her service animal

Carrie: Let’s keep walking and talking. As I was saying, some community members, local planners, and other local officials don’t understand the importance of emergency planning with and for people with disabilities.

Or they may think that it’s someone else’s job.

Prepared4ALL really means for ALL.

Oh, hi PJ and EM. I was just talking about some planners’ knowledge gaps.

PJ, in their 30s wears a facemask and uses a walking cane

PJ: Hi, Carrie. I’ve been thinking about this a lot.

? Suppose a local emergency planner asks you why they should include people with disabilities in local emergency planning. What can you say?

EM, a white bald man in his 50s wears a facemask

EM: If someone asks you why this matters, you could also talk about health inequity. Local emergency planning is a health issue.

As you know, people with disabilities, chronic and mental health conditions often experience health inequities. Health inequities happen when some groups don’t have the same access to opportunities and services as others. Health inequities are often avoidable and don’t always stem from the conditions themselves. In emergencies, disasters, and pandemics, existing health inequities may make things worse for people with disabilities.

People with disabilities are two to four times more likely to die or get injured in an emergency or disaster than people without disabilities. That’s another reason we need to be Prepared4ALL.

Why? Bias and lack of awareness contribute. Particularly since Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the disability community has strongly advocated for changes. It’s been tougher than you think to change people’s minds and emergency and public health preparedness systems.

Let’s talk to Cèsar about his experience.

César, a Latino man in his 40s, wears a suit and a facemask. He uses a power wheelchair and has a Golden Retriever service dog (Ginger)

César: A few years ago, I was on vacation in Faraway County when disaster struck. I made it to the emergency shelter, but they didn’t allow my service animal, Ginger, to stay with me.

Instead, they kept her in a separate building next to the shelter. It was a policy, they told me. I could visit Ginger whenever I wanted to, but can you imagine what good it did me?

? Consider this: What good did it do César to keep Ginger in a pet shelter next to his emergency shelter? Which of the following do you agree with?

? Imagine it. How do you think this impacted shelter workers?

I want you to talk to my buddy. Rafe, now you talk to them.

Rafe, an Afro-Caribbean man in his 40s, wears a facemask and US Marine Corps hat

Rafe: I’m open about having PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). I share my life experiences in the book I’m writing on the real disaster experiences of disabled people. You heard that right.

In my book, I use identity-first language (disabled person versus the person with a disability). Carrie told me you’re going to talk about that on another visit.  

I’ve heard it all about disaster experiences. I’ve heard about:

Lengthy power outages with no access to power for ventilators or charging power wheelchairs

Delays in accessing services and supports disabled people may need

Lost access to health care, making health problems worse

Putting people in nursing homes when they’d rather be in the community

Separation from vital equipment and supports that led to lost independence, like what happened to César

Lost access to daily routines and familiar environments that caused severe distress

– People with disabilities being sent to medical shelters when they don’t need to. This separates them from their families and natural supports, taking away their rights and increasing the stress on the local healthcare system.

Disasters and pandemics aren’t only about inequity. They mess up people’s services, resources, equipment, supports, and access to the built environment. That’s a BIG deal for people with disabilities, and planners need to know that.

Some individuals may already have existing life difficulties that may make emergencies, disasters or pandemics more challenging. Pre-existing crises may lead to these individuals having more access and functional needs

Let me show you a photo from my book. It’s from a New York emergency shelter during a disaster:

A photo of a staircase leading into an emergency shelter. A handwritten sign directs those needing the accessible entrance to request assistance - at the top of the stairs
Photo credit: CIDNY, 2012. Used with permission.

? What do you notice, Terrye?

Rafe: If you look closely, you’ll see that the directions on the handwritten sign are impossible to follow if you use a wheelchair. The directions say, go to the security desk to get help with the accessible entrance.

But the security desk is at the top of the stairs. Someone who uses a wheelchair couldn’t walk up the stairs to the security desk to ask for help with the accessible entrance!

These oversights may seem small and unimportant, but they have real consequences. Did people using wheelchairs have to just sit there and yell up the stairs for help? Wait for someone to notice them? Did they give up and go home?              

Here’s another one, from inside an emergency shelter during a Central Massachusetts ice storm:

An aerial image of a crowded emergency shelter with many people, beds, and supplies
Emergency Shelter during Ice Storm
Used with permission, L. Jackson, MA Medical Reserve Corps Region 4 A

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