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War, Disease, and Natural Disasters: What About Those with Disabilities?

The disabled population likely experiences an amplified sense of vulnerability during disastrous happenings. The compounded risks encountered by the disabled during a catastrophic event are a real, and very serious, concern. A 2019 Act focuses on this hinderance and will attempt to bridge the accessibility gap for disaster response and preparedness for those living with disabling conditions.

Congressional Response to Potential Disasters

Earlier this year, the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness and Advancing Innovation Act was signed into law. Building upon the 2006 Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Act, Congress introduced the new bill with a subset committee focused on disability inclusion. It addresses the important issue of how to ensure the elderly and disabled populations are best cared for in a disaster, whether it be a natural disaster, a public health emergency, or a man-made disaster.  In addition to creating a committee focused on how to best care for those with a disability during a disaster, the Act also enables military trauma care providers to train their civilian counterparts, creates a regional system of trauma care centers, and increases funding for a program that enables the health care system to plan for and respond to medical surge events.

Disability Awareness

The National Advisory Committee on Individuals with Disabilities and Disasters focuses on disability accessibility and inclusion for disaster preparedness and response efforts. The committee refers to the ADA definition of disability and is armed with a variety of critical members, amongst which are a minimum of two members being “non-Federal health care professionals with expertise in disability accessibility” in disaster scenarios;  at least two “representatives from State, local, Tribal, or territorial agencies with expertise in disaster… [scenarios] …for individuals with disabilities”; and no less than two members generally experienced in disaster preparedness and response for those with disabilities.

The committee enhances the previous law’s section on At-Risk Individuals. Its goal is to “align preparedness and response programs or activities to address similar, dual, or overlapping needs of children, seniors, and individuals with disabilities, and any challenges in preparing for and responding to such needs.” The committee intends to provide advice and tactics for state preparedness and response to disaster scenarios.

Effects of a Disability on Disaster Preparedness and Response

Historically, the disabled population has experienced compounded hardships in response to disastrous occurrences. Socioeconomic status, accessibility hurdles, and complex medical needs have prevented many from receiving adequate aid during disasters. Providing access to disaster response efforts for the disabled population – an estimated 19.4% in the United States – is a real concern.

Thoughtful consideration must be made regarding accessibility obstacles. Consider the following:

  • Not all disabled Americans speak English – preparedness and response protocols must be offered in alternative languages;
  • Blind individuals may need information in braille form. Additionally, blind individuals may need help in locating and navigating to relief locations;
  • Sign language may be necessary to convey information to individuals with audiological disabilities;
  • Some disaster response locations are not accessible to individuals with mobility limitations;
  • Responders need to be prepared to locate, transport, and assist individuals with complex medical needs, such as those that require the use of electronic medical equipment for survival;
  • Those with sensory disabilities might become perilously overwhelmed by the chaos following a disastrous event;
  • Individuals with compound disabilities may need to overcome multiple accessibility obstacles.

Consider, too, that disasters are bound to cause significant, and disabling, injuries to a variety of individuals in affected regions – subsequently causing an upsurge in the disabled population. The sudden onset of a disabling condition is likely unfathomably shocking. Imagine how terrified an able-bodied person might be if they were to suddenly become paralyzed during a hurricane. Not only are these newly disabled individuals trying to cope with their new circumstances, they are also fighting the real possibility that they may be unable to reach or access services rendering aid.  

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Tips for Those with Disabilities to Mitigate Disaster Hurdles

What can seniors and those with disabilities do to mitigate the potential hurdles and pitfalls associated with a disaster?

  1. Simplify communication between responders and the individual: Technology has come a long way.  There is a plethora of companies that offer instant communication between responders and customers.  These are often marketed as a medical alert system or a demand safety device.  Make sure the alert system can easily be transported by the individual.  For added benefit, ensure the device is waterproof. 
  2. Streamline health and medication information: There are software and hardware companies that offer products that will keep health and medication information digitally, so responders can easily access this information.  For example, an individual can enroll in online medication reporting.  That will help a responder identify when a disoriented or unconscious individual has had their last dose of medication, or help in the event that an individual has become separated from their medication and cannot recall if they have taken their appropriate prescriptions. 
  3. Ensure the individual has access to weather and breaking-news reports: Apps on a phone or SmartTV can be key to getting timely alerts.  There are even weather alert radios that can generate alerts in different modalities.  For example, a flashing light in conjunction with an audible sound can be produced, to assist those with hearing issues. 
  4. Communication between friends and family: Speak with loved ones about how a disaster could impact their care.  Have a plan.  Discuss possible disastrous scenarios and how it would be best to react to them. 
  5. Contact authorities to get information: Speak with local police or fire departments to learn about their disaster procedures.  Where would people be housed in the event of an emergency?  What routes would be best to take after a flood?  Who can one contact for transportation needs during a disaster?  Are there first responders who use sign language?  See if local libraries, disability advocate centers, or senior centers have presentations or resources on disaster preparedness. 

In Sum

The implementation of the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness and Advancing Innovation Act is very important for our disabled population. Preparing for the unknown is a difficult endeavor, and all people should be included in the plan.  The array of committee members strengthens the likelihood that all individuals will benefit from emergency preparedness and response efforts in the future, dread the thought, when or if disaster strikes.

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