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?

12 thoughts on “In Case of Emergency, Break Glass: People With Disabilities and Disaster Preparedness

  1. Where I live, natural disasters are unlikely to be a danger. On the other hand, my most vital, highly specialized medical supplies are manufactured in continental Europe, so I always wonder what would happen to people like me in the event of a war or fuel crisis (i.e. no, or few, cargo plans/ships going between the UK and rest-of-Europe). On the one hand, I’d like to think that the powers that be would get set some labs to making my stuff. On the other – in WW3? Would we be the priority? I think not… :/

  2. Where I live the number one natural disaster, by far, is earthquakes. For me, earthquakes are especially scary, especially for people who are not ambulatory. Earthquakes hit without warning and there simply is no way to evacuate people out of the area beforehand. What’s really scary is that a really severe earthquake can tear up roads and make motor travel impossible: To get out of the disaster zone you might have to walk, which isn’t an option at all for a lot of people.

  3. I have no idea what is being done for people with disabilities in Christchurch since the earthquake because, as per usual, the media has no interest in covering it. I do know that at one point, the hospital had no water supply and so sent a mother who had just given birth by emergency caesarean home with her baby. To a home with no power or water either. So I don’t expect that people with disabilities are getting treated any better. I’ll try and see what I can do.

  4. Great post: I do notice that people with disabilities are so often left out of these discussions. Since I’m in the Northeast myself, the only thing I heard this go around of “be prepared!” that may specifically be applicable to PWD was the warnings about making sure you had enough days of your prescriptions on hand, just in case. Of course, they didn’t say how you go about paying for those extra days, or even getting it approved by the pharmacy (which I know will not give me my meds even 24 hours before the day that’s written on the bottle), which seemed to me to be the things that I would like to know, but at least they told you to get it: it is obviously our fault if we fail to do so!

  5. At the job I had before my current one, I worked on the third floor of an office building. The company had lots of employees with disabilities and was generally accomodating. The trouble came with the building’s landlords and/or the city’s emergency management policies.

    See, among the employees at the time, there was a man with a spinal cord injury — he uses a power wheelchair and a service dog. He worked from home most days, as driving is difficult for him, but once every couple of weeks he would come in to the office.

    Since the building’s owners didn’t account for PWDs in its emergency management plan, the company I worked for asked what the policy was in the event of a fire or other emergency on the days he (or any of our other employees with mobility impairments) was in the office.

    The landlords’ response? “Oh, the rest of you just evacuate and let the firefighters know he’s up there.”

    Needless to say, none of us were particularly pleased with that answer. (The plan we eventually came up with involved the employee’s input, and *also* involved getting *everybody* out. Imagine that.)

  6. HopefulNebula – my dorm is 10 stories tall … we have to go down all 10 flights when the fire alarm goes off.

    Even the girl living on the 2nd floor who uses a wheelchair and a walker has to.

    I told my mom she lived on the 2nd floor and she couldn’t believe it was legal.

  7. I wonder if it would be feasible to require high-rise apartments and dormitories to have evacuation sleds, in the way that fire escapes and sprinkler systems are often required by law. Although if they require additional people to use, then I guess the person with a disability ends up waiting for the firefighters to arrive anyway.

    Kaitlyn — My college dorm required students who couldn’t use the stairs to live on the ground floor. I had to help one of my classmates pack and move all her belongings with two months left in the semester because she injured her back, and could temporarily not use the stairs. Also the policy assumes that people with disabilities will never want to visit their friends upstairs…

  8. There was a firedrill in my building at work the other day. Afterwards, I asked a couple of firewardens how they would assist wheelchair users and people who are otherwise unable to use the stairs. None of them knew.


  9. I tried once to make the workplace I worked in explicitly state how they would evacuate people with mobility impairments during a firedrill. They kept refusing to answer me, so I asked my coworkers to please ask as well, as was promptly told that this wasn’t an “activism issue”.

    I worked at the Department of Health.

  10. I once encountered the Fire Marshall of the university where I attended medical school. I had spent a year in a dormatory on the 15th floor where I had walked down several times a month for fire drills, and a few months earlier had been involved in an evacuation of one of our medical office buildings where a patient and I, both with mobility impairment, were offered some amateur assistance from passers-by. I asked him why we didn’t have clearly labeled “areas of rescue assistance” in the stairwells for people with mobility impairments.

    Then I had to find and e-mail him references explaining what an “Area of rescue assistance” was the legal requirements of having them from the ADA website.

    He thanked me for bringing this very interesting information to his attention. When I left, two years later, we still didn’t have areas of rescue assistance, nor any specific plan I knew to evacuate people with mobility impairments from any of our academic or medical buildings. And the Braille signs for the fire exits still didn’t say what the English said. But why would we possibly have people with visual or mobility impairment working in or otherwise being in academic or medical buildings without someone to accompany them?

  11. Hi! We’re featuring this blog post as a conversation starter on the forums for DisabilityPrepared, a new website focusing on best practices in emergency preparedness for people with disabilities. If anyone would like to join the discussion, or if you’ve had any additional thoughts since you posted this blog, we’d love to have you come join us for a discussion over here:

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