Redefining Disability Challenge – Question 31: Emergency Preparedness

Each Wednesday, I post my response to a question from the Redefining Disability Challenge. This is my response to the thirty first question in the Challenge. As usual, I am not looking ahead to future questions, so I may inadvertently address some topics which will come up later in the Challenge. Here is this week’s question:

Free Post Day! Write about any topic not already covered in the challenge.

September is National Preparedness Month in the United States. Many government and disability organizations are posting social media links to resources for people with disabilities related to the topic of preparing for emergencies. I had originally planned to write about this topic but forgot until I read something last week which made me sad and angry at the same time.

Last week I read the story of Barbara McWilliams, a 72 year old woman from California who died in the Valley Fire. McWilliams had multiple sclerosis and was unable to walk. According to the story on the National Post website, McWilliams refused an offer of assistance to evacuate, not realizing how close the fire was to her house.

I can understand her reluctance to evacuate. When I am in my home environment, I am at my most independent. Given the choice between riding out a blizzard in an evacuation shelter or staying cooped up at home, I am going to stay home. But a blizzard is not a fire. Nor is it a flood.

When I worked at the New York State Department of Health Disability and Health Program, one of our focus areas was emergency preparedness for people with disabilities. Everything we did in relation to preparedness changed after Hurricane Katrina.

Like many, I sat watching the horrific images broadcast from the Gulf Coast states. The videos stayed with me. People stranded on bridges, rooftops, and roads. It was too much for me to process so I stopped watching for a day or two.

I don’t remember why I turned the television on again. I can’t remember the network or the reporter. A woman stood in a hallway inside the Superdome, talking about the conditions in the dome.

I don’t remember anything about her because I was so focused on what was behind her.

Piles of walkers, crutches and canes.

Rows of empty wheelchairs.

Devices which belonged to people. People who were now stranded on the floor of the Superdome without their mobility. People who were stuck on cots or on the floor, who probably did not have their Personal Assistants with them.

The image haunted me. Each piece of equipment was a person with a disability, like me, who had been evacuated. Now they didn’t even have the ability to move independently.

One of the many lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina was that people with disabilities were disproportionately affected by the storm and the floods which followed. This is the topic of a moving video from Rooted in Rights called The Right to Be Rescued. The documentary is intended to help emergency planners realize how important it is to include people with disabilities in emergency planning.

As a person with a disability who relies on others for her personal care needs, I understand how emergencies or natural disasters can be especially difficult for other people with disabilities. I also recognize it is important for me to take responsibility for my own safety in preparing for emergency situations.

My experiences with helping people with disabilities begin to prepare for emergencies has taught me most people with disabilities (not all) suffer from the “it won’t happen to me” syndrome.

Guess what? It NEVER happens to you – until it happens to you. And then it’s too late to prepare.

The time to prepare is now, when things are mundane and ordinary. The time to make your emergency plan is before you are in the middle of an emergency situation.

Making an emergency plan does not need to be an exhausting process. Start simple if the thought is overwhelming. Here is a list of four things you can do today to help you prepare for whatever emergency may come your way next. These steps are important for everyone – regardless of disability status.

  1. Know what types of emergencies are likely to happen in your region. Do you live in Tornado Alley? Or are you more likely to receive hurricane warnings? For me, I am most concerned about winter storms as these are most common where I live. The American Red Cross has tips for each type of emergency and you can learn more by visiting their site here.
  2. Develop your emergency communication plan. Think about your support system – those people who help you in your community, your family and friends, and your paid staff. How will you communicate with them in an emergency? Do you have an ‘out of town contact’ who will be able to relay information if everyone in your immediate area is impacted by a disaster? Consider any evacuation route or escape plan you might need to coordinate with others. Don’t assume “someone” will help – make a plan to have someone help.
  3. Start to assemble your “go bag” or emergency kit. If you have to evacuate, what will you NEED to take with you in order to survive? I have a spare wheelchair charger I keep in my living room. If I need to get out of my apartment in a hurry, I can grab it and go. I also have a File of Life in a magnetic sleeve mounted on my computer. This has emergency contact information for my doctors, family members and Personal Assistants in one place. I also have information stored in a draft email. If I am unable to access my File of Life, the information can be accessed through my email account from any computer. I don’t take prescription medications, so I don’t think about that in my emergency kit, but you should consider this if you do take them.
  4. Update your plan when necessary. Things change. Sometimes people who were in your circle of support move away or are no longer in your life. Roads are closed and routes of travel are altered during construction. You may need to change or update your plan over time or when new staff come into your life.

This is not an exhaustive list by any means. You can find more tips and additional resources by visiting the National Organization on Disability and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

2 thoughts on “Redefining Disability Challenge – Question 31: Emergency Preparedness

  1. This ‘what to do’ list should be followed by everyone. I recognise it is easier for everyone/anyone to be in denial but things do go go wrong, and there is no-one to blame but yourself if you are not prepared. In relation to fire, we see it in Australia every year – people simply don’t get how fast and hot a bush fire is. As much as I would like to think I would have time and could leave when it suits me if a bush fire was on the top of the hill where I live, I know this is a recipe for unplanned suicide. The time to leave is before fire services personnel knock on my door – they will have enough trouble with those who don’t get it.


    • I was living in Tasmania during the Kingborough fires in early 1991. I was amazed at how quickly they spread and the work done by the fire brigade. Nobody likes to think it could happen to them, but taking time to prepare in advance makes survival easier. Thank you for reading and sharing your views.


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