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The New Dialogue
Disasters change lives forever. For the 49 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 postdisaster 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.
As experts have long recognized, advance preparation is the key to mitigating
the impact of both disasters and disabilities. This is the principle
foundation of the United Nation's designation of the 1990s as the International
Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction: with adequate knowledge and
preparation, many of the harmful effects of disasters are avoidable. This same
principle is central to the ADA: with education, planning, and reasonable accommodation,
the impact of societal and attitudinal barriers facing people with
disabilities can be reduced dramatically. In both cases, information is often
the most valuable resource for effective mitigation.
Yet the important mitigation efforts of both the disaster and disability
communities have all too often failed to intersect. The simple, often low
cost steps that save lives and reduce property damage in the face of disasters
have often overlooked the needs of people with disabilities. 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
Leaders and experts within the disability community, members of relief
organizations, media professionals, and local, state, and federal officials
must establish a cooperative relationship to address this shortcoming. The
challenges ahead will be overcome only by an ongoing dialogue among these and
That dialogue must, at a minimum,
identify key issues concerning the needs of people with disabilities when
disasters strike, develop effective strategies for resolving those issues, and
build relationships and delineate responsibilities among disaster mitigation
organizations, the media, and disabilities organizations.
Seven key principles should guide that dialogue.
- 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.
- 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
- 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 postdisaster resources.
- 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.
- 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.
- Disaster Preparation, Edcation, 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.
- 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