Preparing and caring for those with disabilities, in disasters

November 16, 2014

This semester in crisis informatics has been eye-opening, each unit adding another layer of complexity, or showing another angle on information needs and behaviors during disasters. It has been energizing to see the work of groups like DIMRC and the Standby Task Force, and to think about the possibilities of technology and crowdsourcing, like the ideas discussed in Patrick Meier’s blog iRevolution.

Last week’s unit on preparedness for people with disabilities was one of the biggest shocks of all, for me. It shouldn’t have been, had I ever considered the situation of people with disabilities in disasters; but, like most emergency planners (according to the NCD report), I hadn’t.

Talk about adding a layer of complexity. The 2014 report by the National Council on Disability notes inaccessible television announcements, emergency notification systems, maps, emergency websites, and other communications. It mentions “shelters at which no one is able to communicate with people who are deaf or hard of hearing” (p. 9).

Frieden (2006) notes that many of these difficulties listed above faced people with disabilities during and after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. (Another major challenge, though not an information challenge, was the lack of accessible transportation to evacuate people with disabilities.) As a result, he asserts, people with disabilities were “disproportionately affected” by the disasters. One major reason is the media used for emergency communications. Most people get their information from television, but most broadcasts were not captioned or did not include ASL interpretation. Some deaf and hard of hearing tried to use their cell phones, but when the towers blew down, they were useless.

Earlier in the semester, we praised radio as a great, cheap, community tool for sharing information. But what if you are deaf? When the power goes out, “radio becomes the primary, and in many cases, the sole lifeline and communication tool to a community and its residents Frieden’s report is full of chilling statistics and testimony. But the most sobering quote, I think, is this one: “The challenges faced by people with disabilities during and after the Hurricanes, while unique in scope and proportion, were similar to the challenges people with disabilities face on a day-to-day basis” (Frieden, 2006, p. 2-3).

In theory, the ADA and Section 508 and other legislation protects the rights of the disabled and ensures them access to information from Federal agencies, including emergency information. But Homeland Security and FEMA’s own websites were found not to be compliant (p. 9). If our agencies can’t be bothered to ensure access on a day-to-day basis, how can we expect our citizens with disabilities to trust in them in case of disaster?

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