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Disaster Experiences of People with Disabilities

In the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorism disasters, experts say not enough is being done to assure evacuation of people with disabilities from high-rises and other buildings.

Evacuation plans for people with disabilities in times of disaster are not well developed. Accessible Society Deputy Director William Stothers tells of his days as a newspaperman working on the upper floors of the San Diego Union Tribune; the only evacuation plan given him being "the names of two co-workers who were supposed to help me get out in an emergency." There was never any plan, Stothers said; oftentimes these colleagues weren't even working the same hours as Stothers.

In a private email, a woman told of having met just the previous week with "people at a university" who were discussing evacuation of people with disabilties from dorms during an emergency. "I suggested they get the LifeSlider for saving mobility-disabled students, but they wondered about liability and how much space it would take up in the stairwell when other people were also trying to get out," she wrote.

Reports following the 1994 Calif. earthquake showed services like the American Red Cross unable to deal with disability; of inaccessible shelters and deaf people turned away from services because they could not be understood.

Read Earthquake!" by Jim Hammitt, Mainstream magazine, May, 1994

Read "Disaster," by Douglas Lathrop, Mainstream magazine, Nov., 1994

Too little is being done to design buildings with thought to evacuation of people with disabilities when elevators no longer work. Some worry that in the wake of last week's disaster, companies will again be reluctant to hire people with disabilities, fearing liability.

Media coverage

  • Deutsche Presse reported the story of Michael Hingson, a blind man who had managed to escape with his guide dog's help. Read it at

  • USA Today reporter Bruce Horowitz's Sept. 13 story of Michael Benfante and John Cerqueira helping an unnamed disabled woman down the WTC stairwell " -- strapped in a special chair --" as he put it, has been much reprinted. Read it at



For more information:

Disaster Preparedness for People with Disabilities: This site, prepared by June Isaacson Kailes who serves as vice-president of the U.S. Access Board, offers information for people with disabilities in the wake of a disaster. Prepared initially for earthquake information, it is valuable for any disaster:

Emergency Evacuation Preparedness: Taking Responsibility For Your Safety A Guide For People with Disabilities and Other Activity Limitations, online at

Information on Assisting People With Disabilities In A Disaster is available from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Information on disaster preparedness from the National Organization on Disability.






Disaster Mitigation for People with Disabilities


Expert sources

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