In Case of Emergency, Break Glass: People With Disabilities and Disaster Preparedness
Last week, Hurricane Earl appeared to be bearing down on the Eastern Seaboard on the United States, and there were a number of stories about communities preparing for evacuation, or weathering out the storm. Watching the news unfold, I noted a pretty glaring absence in the coverage: Any discussion, at all, of people with disabilities. Ever since Hurricane Katrina, the US government has been aware that there are significant gaps in disaster preparedness planning for the disabled community. Several reports since then have suggested that, despite policy changes, most communities are still not ready to deal with the evacuation of their disabled residents.
What this boils down to is that people with disabilities get left behind in disasters. If they weather the disaster itself, they are left without any support networks, for as long as it takes to reestablish community services. For people dependent on electric medical devices, this can translate into death within hours or days as electricity services are cut and backup power sources dwindle away, one by one. For others, it means sitting for days without access to food, medications, and basic hygiene services.
‘Be prepared,’ they tell us. Establish an evacuation plan. Don’t plan on depending on family or public services. Stock up on at least a week’s worth of medication. Register with community organisations (ok, I guess, you can depend on some public services?). If you rely on electric medical devices and need services like dialysis, find locations where you can access electricity and the health services you need. Set up multiple failsafes, multiple friends who will check in on you.
And, you know, all this sounds great, in theory. But how does it work out in practice?
Let’s say that you have a degenerative neurological disease and you spend most of your time in bed. You cannot sit upright, walk, or stand. That means that, if an evacuation order comes through, you need transport that can accommodate you. That transport? Can cost thousands of dollars, one way. Assuming you can access it, which is not a guarantee, because transport services may not be running or may already be booked. Are you supposed to maintain a $30,000 USD adaptive van in the garage in case you need to evacuate at some point?
Let’s say you, like most people with disabilities, are living near, at, or below the poverty line. How are you going to stock up on a week’s worth of expensive medications and supplies? Or you, like many poor folks in urban areas in the US, regardless of disability status, do not have a car. You are dependent on public transport for evacuation. You can’t ‘just get out’ and you certainly don’t have a car packed with evacuation supplies. You are limited to what you can carry. Your friends don’t have cars either. How are you supposed to pack a 50 pound extra battery for your chair, again?
You may have limited friend networks, and many of your friends may be disabled as well. You all need help to evacuate in disasters. You can check in on each other, but none of you can help each other evacuate. What if you’re in a remote, rural area and the closest dialysis center is hundreds of miles away? What if there are no community organisations in your area or, you call to register with them and they say they can’t help, don’t take people like you, have no resources for people like you? What if you call around to emergency shelters and they aren’t accessible, don’t have backup generators for power? What if you can’t communicate with the people running evacuation services and emergency shelters?
There’s a long list of ‘what ifs’ that deconstruct the supposedly ‘easy’ process of planning ahead for a disaster. Every single disaster preparedness guide for people with disabilities I’ve looked up starts with ‘make a plan,’ but doesn’t really provide information on how to make that plan, what to do if it’s functionally impossible in your community to plan. How can people be expected to ‘just make a plan’ when they lack access to basic services even when there’s no impending disaster?
A common stigmatisation ploy used against people with disabilities is that we are ‘dependent’ on the government and rely on the government for everything. But, when it comes to survival, we are reminded in disasters that we actually cannot depend on the government. People with disabilities are told that there are no measures in place to assist them during evacuations, and they need to make their own arrangements. Functionally, that results in being left behind to ‘weather it out’ and hope that, when emergency responders finally start arriving, they can enact a rescue before it’s too late. It’s too expensive, evidently, to include us in community disaster planning.
We won’t even talk about what happens after the disaster, when people with disabilities have a harder time recovering than the general population. Just making it through a disaster at all is a feat, given the way the deck is stacked against us. The government is working on making disaster planning more inclusive, but it’s not working fast enough. It’s another reminder of the impact social attitudes has on policy; we are an afterthought, we are demanding ‘special treatment’ when we ask to be evacuated to safety with the rest of the population.
What kind of disaster planning is available in your community? If there is a disaster, what will happen to you?