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Confronting the Challenges of Evacuating People with Disabilities

Tips for planning for the evacuation needs of disabled persons in the community.

by Deborah Hayes / September 29, 2014
In any disaster planned for by emergency management personnel, one in five people encountered will have a disability of some type. Michael Rieger/FEMA

In 2013, the United Nations Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Disaster Risk Reduction, Margareta Wahlström, noted that people with disabilities experience a disproportionately high level of disaster-related injury and death because their needs are neglected by the official planning process in most situations.

The UN conducted a survey of people with disabilities who had survived disasters around the world. Few respondents were aware of any disaster management plans in their communities, and fewer had participated in any planning processes, although half of the respondents expressed a desire to do so.

According to survey respondents, just 20 percent said they could evacuate “immediately without difficulty” in the event of a sudden disaster. If “sufficient” time were available, the percentage of those who could evacuate without difficulty nearly doubled (to 38 percent), underscoring the need for effective and inclusive early warning systems.

There is no reason to believe that the situation in the U.S. is substantially different than the one highlighted in the UN report. According to a report issued by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2012, about 56.7 million people, or approximately 19 percent of the population, had a disability in 2010. Of those individuals who reported having a disability:

  • About 7.6 million people experienced difficulty hearing, including 1.1 million whose difficulty was severe. About 5.6 million used a hearing aid.
  • Roughly 30.6 million had difficulty walking or climbing stairs, or used a wheelchair, cane, crutches or walker.
  • About 19.9 million people had difficulty lifting and grasping. This includes, for instance, trouble lifting an object like a bag of groceries or grasping a glass or pencil.

This means that in any disaster planned for by emergency management personnel, one in five people encountered will have a disability of some type. Studies after Hurricane Katrina found that approximately one-third of those who did not leave their homes during the disaster had a disability. In fact, when survivors were interviewed after the storm, the two primary reasons given for not evacuating were either the person had a disability or was a family member of someone with a disability and stayed behind to act as a caretaker. One of the lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina and other recent disasters is that the special needs of people with disabilities must be integrated into all aspects of emergency management.

So how does an emergency manager plan for the evacuation needs of disabled persons in the community?

Become familiar with planning tools that have already been developed by reputable organizations, such as the National Organization on Disability.

The organization’s guide, titled Functional Needs of People with Disabilities: A Guide for Emergency Managers, Planners and Responders, is a step-by-step how-to document on all aspects of planning for emergency managers and the people in their communities who have disabilities.

Include representation by the disabled community throughout the planning process.

Evacuation planning should include representation by community members who are disabled. This process will help establish a strong working relationship with the community before a disaster occurs. This involvement can also assist the emergency manager in identifying organizations or resources within the community that are already used by individuals with disabilities. These organizations can in turn disseminate information that will aid people with disabilities to assume a role in determining their own needs and therefore take on some of the planning responsibility for their needs.

Identify the needs of the community.

Working with the disabled community in the planning process also allows the emergency manager to identify areas of need, particularly in the two most challenging aspects of evacuation: communication and transportation. Community organizations or agencies that represent the varied needs of the disabled population can assist in getting access to information about people with disabilities and where they live. This information can aid the emergency manager in getting a clearer picture of this segment of the community.

Self-identification and preparation.

People with disabilities should have a means by which they can self-identify. Some methods have been shown to be successful, including: registration with the local emergency management department; pre-made emergency go bags or the provision of information about specific emergency information readily available for the community; and an emergency notification system for people who might need assistance to be informed promptly in the event of a disaster.

Develop a list of resources to assist people with disabilities.

This list must be maintained and updated to reflect information and resources as they exist. Additionally, this list must be made available to organizations and individual members of the community who have disabilities.

Train first responders in the needs of persons with disabilities.

Many first responders aren’t familiar with the specific needs of disabled people. Providing training to first responders using community members will heighten awareness and allow the responders to find out firsthand what needs might arise in the event of a disaster.

Build strong relationships with government agencies that work with disabled people.

Emergency managers should develop relationships with government entities that regularly work with people who have disabilities. This will allow learning in both directions and help pinpoint potential problems before they occur. Such organizations should also be involved in the planning and information dissemination process as they are usually aware of community resources that might be unknown to the emergency manager.

With careful planning incorporating input from a broad spectrum of the community, emergency managers can make better decisions. These decisions will lead to a smoother evacuation, as well as fewer injuries and deaths.

Deborah Hayes has worked in emergency management and disaster response for more than 10 years for various organizations, including the American Red Cross, FEMA and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. She completed her Ph.D. in architecture from Georgia Tech examining building safety issues. 

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