Taking shelter from a storm is an ordeal for everyone, but for people with physical or mental disabilities, natural disasters add an additional layer of logistical and legal challenges. In a recent Stanford Law School blog post, Rabia Belt, JD, PhD, a legal historian, discusses how people with disabilities are disproportionately affected by hurricanes, earthquakes and other disasters.
Many emergency preparedness plans overlook the needs of people with physical and mental disabilities, Belt writes. For example, many can't just drive their own car or wait in hours of traffic on the highways. Other challenges abound:
Evacuation busses may not have wheelchair lifts. Plan information, such as written materials or sirens, may be inaccessible for people with visual or hearing impairments. Shelters may lack sufficient electrical plugs for people who may need constant connections for their equipment.
Another immediate need is transportation for support animals and necessary medical equipment. “Shelters may deny entry to support animals [and] rescuers may rescue the person, but not their medical equipment,” Belt said. Issues can also arise after people with disabilities are evacuated. She wrote:
People may be bused to institutions far away from their homes 'for their own good' and it may take them a long time, if ever, to leave institutionalized care after the emergency is over. People may lose important documents during the disaster that might be crucial for new or continued government benefit eligibility later.
So, how can we do a better job of addressing the needs of people with disabilities? "The key is to anticipate problems by including disability concerns in emergency plans when they are created, partnering with people with disabilities and disability advocacy groups, and pushing emergency management organizations such as the Red Cross to provide clear direction on what they are doing for the disability community."