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

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