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Disaster Mitigation for Persons with Disabilities

For the 54 million Americans with disabilities, and millions of others around the world, surviving a disaster can be the beginning of a greater struggle. Whether an individual with a disability requires electricity to power a respirator, life-sustaining medication, mobility assistance, or post disaster recovery services, relief organizations and rescue personnel increasingly must be prepared to address the needs of that individual in the hours and days following a disaster.

Similarly, efforts to accommodate disabled Americans frequently ignore disaster preparedness and response. As a result, too few disaster response officials are trained to deal effectively with people with disabilities, and too few disabled Americans have the knowledge that could help them save their own lives.

Seven key principles should guide disaster relief:

1. Accessible Disaster Facilities and Services:
Communications technology is vital for people with disabilities during a disaster to help assess damage, collect information, and deploy supplies. Access to appropriate facilities -- housing, beds, toilets, and other necessities -- must be monitored and made available to individuals with disabilities before, during, and after a disaster. This access also must be ensured for those who incur a disability as a result of a disaster. Appropriate planning and management of information related to architectural accessibility improves the provision of disaster services for persons with disabilities.

2. Accessible Communications and Assistance:
As communications technology and policy become more integral to disaster relief and mitigation, providing accessibility to the technology for people with disabilities becomes more essential. For example, people with hearing impairments require interpreters, TDD communications, and signaling devices. In addition, written materials must be produced on cassette tape, on CD-ROM, or in large print for people with visual impairments. People with cognitive impairments, such as those with developmental disabilities, Alzheimer's disease, or brain injury, require assistance to cope with new surroundings and to minimize confusion factors. It is crucial that people with disabilities help develop accessible communications and reliable assistance technologies.

3. Accessible and Reliable Rescue Communications:
Accessible and reliable communications technology is critical to ensuring fast, effective, and competent field treatment of people with disabilities. Current satellite and cellular technology as well as personal communication networks permit communication in areas with a damaged or destroyed communication infrastructure. Communications technologies can assist field personnel in rescue coordination and tracking and can be combined with databases that house information on optimal treatment for particular disabilities or that track the allocation of post disaster resources.

4. Partnerships with the Disability Community:
Disability organizations must join with relief and rescue organizations and the media to educate and inform their constituents of disaster contingency and self-help plans. A nationwide awareness effort should be devised and implemented to inform people with disabilities about necessary precautions for imminent disaster. In the event of a sudden natural disaster, such a program would minimize injury and facilitate rescue efforts. In addition, more young people with disabilities should be encouraged to study technology, medicine, science, and engineering as a way of gaining power over future technological advances in disaster relief and mitigation.

5. Disaster Preparation, Education, and Training:
Communications technologies are crucial for educating the public about disaster preparedness and warning the people most likely to be affected. Relief and rescue operations must have the appropriate medical equipment, supplies, and training to address the immediate needs of people with disabilities. Affected individuals may require bladder bags, insulin pumps, walkers, or wheelchairs. Relief personnel must be equipped and trained in the use of such equipment. In addition, relief personnel should provide training, particularly for personnel and volunteers in the field, on how to support the independence and dignity of persons with disabilities in the aftermath of a disaster.

6. Partnerships with the Media:
Many natural disasters can be predicted in advance. Disaster preparedness for people with disabilities is critical in minimizing the impact of a disaster. The media -- in partnership with disability and governmental organizations -- should incorporate advisories into emergency broadcasts in formats accessible to people with disabilities. Such advisories alert the public, provide a mechanism for informing rescue personnel of individual medical conditions and impairments, and identify accessible emergency shelters. The creation and repetition of accessible media messages is critical for empowering people with disabilities to protect themselves from disasters.

7. Universal Design and Implementation Strategies:
Designing universal access into disaster relief plans, far from being a costly proposition, can pay off handsomely. As accessible communications tools become more widely available, their price will decrease. In addition, a universal design approach to meeting the needs of people with disabilities before and after a disaster will benefit many people without disabilities, such as the very young or the aged. A look at existing agreements among relief organizations and local, state, federal, and international governments will offer guidance in developing effective strategies for universal design and implementation plans. The federal government's role has yet to be defined, but it could encourage or even mandate universal design and set standards. For example, the federal government could provide guidelines for evacuation plans or pre-disaster warning periods.

From a report by The Annenberg Washington Program written in collaboration with the President's Committee on the Employment of People with Disabilities by Dr. Peter David Blanck, Annenberg Senior Fellow.

Webcast 'searches for answers'

A free webcast on Wed., Aug. 27 (from 3 to 4:30 p.m. Eastern Time) explores the issue of disaster mitigation and persons with disabilities. To sign up for the webcast, go to --or view it from the archives at

This webcast "is meant to stimulate discussion and search for answers to problems," says Professor Peter Blanck, Director of the Law, Health Policy & Disability Center at the Iowa College of Law.

Professor Blanck first explored the link between communications, disability policy, and disaster mitigation for persons with disabilities after the world learned of such disasters at Chernobyl and from Hurricane Andrew in Florida. In 1995, as a senior fellow for the Annenberg Washington Program, Blanck published the Annenberg Report "Disaster Mitigation for Persons with Disabilities: Fostering a New Dialogue." This report was done in collaboration with the American Red Cross and the President's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities.

The webcast is an effort to continue the dialogue about using accessible communications technology and disability policy "to save lives and reduce human suffering in the face of disasters throughout the world, and to engage people with disabilities in this dialogue."

The Law, Health Policy, and Disability Center focus on public policy "and its impact on persons with disabilities, with an emphasis on employment, self-determination and self-sufficiency."

Joining Dr. Blanck will be James Schmeling, J.D., Associate Director at the Center, Elizabeth Davis from the National Organization on Disability, and Alan Dinsmore from American Foundation for the Blind.

Research supporting the webcast was conducted with funds from the Milbank Foundation for Rehabilitation through a grant to the Law, Health Policy & Disability Center. Support for the webcast is from the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research through its funding for the Disability Law Resource Project and for Research Information for Independent Living.



For more information:

The Red Cross offers advice on disaster preparedness for people with disabilities at

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:

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.


Expert sources:

Peter Blanck
Director, Law, Health Policy and Disability Center
University of Iowa





Disaster Experiences of People with Disabilities

Webcast 'searches for answers'


Expert sources

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