For the millions of Americans with disabilities, emergencies such as fires and floods present real challenges. Learn how people with disabilities, their families, and first responders can plan ahead for safety during a disaster.
More than 1 in 5 Americans have a disability, and many more are at risk for developing or acquiring one in their lifetime through illness, injury or aging.
Disasters can strike quickly and without warning, forcing people to leave or be confined in their home. People with disabilities and their family members should make plans to protect themselves in the event of an emergency. It is also important that first responders know how to evacuate people with disabilities safely and quickly.
In 2008, a rare winter storm buried Portland, Oregon under more than a foot of snow. The city was gridlocked. Nickole Chevron was stuck in her home for eight days. Many people would consider that an inconvenience. For Nickole, whose muscles are too weak to support her body, those eight days were potentially life-threatening.
Born with spinal muscular atrophy, a genetic disease that progressively weakens the body’s muscles, Nickole is fully reliant on a wheelchair and full-time caregivers for most routine tasks.
Being alone for eight days was not an option. So Nickole signed up for “Ready Now! [PDF – 2.9],” an emergency preparedness training program developed through the Oregon Office of Disability and Health.
“The most important thing I learned from ‘Ready Now!’ was to have a back-up plan in case of an emergency situation,” she said. “When I heard the snow storm was coming, I emailed all my caregivers to find out who lived close by and would be available. I made sure I had a generator, batteries for my wheelchair, and at least a week’s supply of food, water and prescription medication.”
Nickole said the training was empowering, and reinforced her ability to live independently with a disability. She felt better informed about the potential risks people with disabilities could encounter during a disaster. For example, clinics might close, streets and sidewalks might be impassable, or caregivers might be unable to travel.
Among the tips Nickole learned from Oregon’s “Ready Now!” training are:
- Develop a back-up plan. Inform caregivers, friends, family, neighbors or others who might be able to help during an emergency.
- Stock up on food, water, and any necessary prescription medications, medical supplies or equipment. Have enough to last at least a week.
- Make a list of emergency contact information and keep it handy.
- Keep a charged car battery at home. It can power electric wheelchairs and other motorized medical equipment if there is an electricity outage.
- Learn about alternate transportation and routes.
- Understand the responsibilities and limitations of a “first responder” (for example, members of your local fire department of law enforcement office) during a disaster.
“This training shows people with disabilities that they can do more to triage their situation in a crisis than anyone else can,” she said. “‘Ready Now!’ encourages people with disabilities to take ownership of their own care.”