Ensuring Accessibility During Natural Disasters

September 12, 2011

Reports indicate that individuals with disabilities are disproportionately affected by natural disasters and emergency situations, due in large part to a lack of adequate planning. Available facilities are frequently inaccessible or are ill equipped to accommodate the needs associated with certain disabilities, therefore, by including individuals with disabilities in all stages of the disaster management process, particularly during the planning and preparation phases, the effectiveness of disaster responses can be greatly improved.

An estimated half a billion people – 10 percent of the world population – experiences some form of impairment or disability. Following recent natural disasters including Hurricane Katrina, studies have found that the regions affected by these disasters are frequently not prepared to evacuate, shelter, transport, or meet the medical needs of individuals with disabilities. In addition, the shelters, transportation services, and emergency communications and information broadcasts available in many regions are often not accessible.

By learning from problems identified following natural disasters, regarding the needs of individuals with disabilities, emergency response initiatives can be modified to ensure that the needs of people with and without disabilities are met. According to experts, all individuals, regardless of their disability status, should prepare for potential disaster situations by having a store of food and water on hand to last a minimum of three days. In addition, it is recommended that individuals with disabilities have a supply of items related to their specific needs – which may include eyeglasses, hearing aides, a laminated communication board, or medications – for at least seven days. FEMA, which recently launched a disaster preparedness app, notes that individuals with certain types of disabilities may need to take additional steps to prepare for and receive assistance following natural disasters. It is suggested that individuals with disabilities establish a network of friends, family, and neighbors who may be able to assist them in the event of an emergency.

While natural disasters affect everyone within a given region, individuals with disabilities may face barriers that can cause additional issues. A number of government agencies, including the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) have put measures in place to help mitigate the barriers faced by individuals with disabilities in emergency situations. Ensuring the inclusion of individuals with disabilities and their representatives in strategic planning efforts and the provision of information in accessible formats before, during, and following natural disasters are among HHS’s chief concerns. In addition, the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and other international policy initiatives aim to ensure that humanitarian responses to natural disasters are inclusive of the needs of individuals with disabilities.

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Click here to read the International Disability Rights Monitor (IDRM) report on Disability and Early Tsunami Relief Efforts in India, Indonesia and Thailand


Using the Internet to Assist Japan

March 15, 2011

On March 11, 2011, Japan was struck by a 9.0 magnitude earthquake – the fourth largest in the world since 1900 – proceeded by a massive tsunami. Reports indicate that at least 550,000 people have been displaced, and at least 10,000 have lost their lives. In the hours and days following these disasters, individuals and organizations have utilized the Internet as a “virtual crisis center,” using websites particularly social networking sites, to share information and locate friends and family members.

According to Ezra Gottheil, an analyst at Technology Business Research, “Social communications, like Twitter, and social networking sites, like Facebook, are at their best when big news is breaking.” As seen following the recent earthquakes in Haiti and Chile, humanitarian aid organizations have used social networking websites to solicit donations. Individuals have also used the sites to share information about their experiences on the ground and reconnect with friends and family members. Online Social Media, an organization which tracks social media services, reported that just an hour after the earthquake hit Japan, Twitter was experiencing 1,200 tweets per minute, many of them containing hashtags related to the tragedy. Facebook was similarly flooded with posts, which students in the U.S. and Japan are working together to use to paint a picture of the extent of the tragedy.

Large corporations have also created portals to help individuals locate loved ones and provide information about where to obtain medical assistance, food, potable water, and shelter. Google’s Person Finder database, available in Japanese, English, Korean, Chinese, and Portuguese allows users to enter a name and search for missing persons or post updates about people who they know are safe. A local version of the crisis-mapping tool, Ushahidi, has also been created and put in place. Ushahidi allows individuals in Japan to text or input online the locations of trapped people or clinic locations which are then plotted on a map so that users can easily pinpoint where people may be trapped, dangerous areas that should be avoided, and locations where food and clean water can be obtained.

Patrick Meier, director of crisis mapping and new media at Ushahidi, notes that “Ten percent of this [sharing of information] is the technology, and the other 90 percent is the people…That’s truer and truer as the technology gets easier to use.” As technology use and adoption becomes more widespread, the use of technology during the rescue and recovery period is likely to increase. By utilizing existing information and communication technologies and developing new ones, outcomes following natural disasters can be improved.


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FEMA Online Guide to Disaster Preparedness

Mobile applications that can prepare you for or provide assistance in a disaster situation: