People with disabilities are disproportionately affected by disasters, but have fewer options in emergencies. Our previous research has shown how natural hazards for people with disabilities can:
- Power failure for life support devices
- Transportation problems mean people have to evacuate without the necessary equipment
- Nowhere as warning information and surroundings (e.g., friends and family homes, or evacuation facilities) are inaccessible.
Disaster planning for people with disabilities. We perpetuate inequality with every step we don’t take and we risk putting ourselves at a disadvantage. And when you make things inclusive for people with disabilities, you tend to make them inclusive for large groups of groups who are also at risk in emergencies, including the elderly, the socially separated, and others. Lots of birds, one stone.
Here are three things that need to be done to increase the options, choice, and control for people with disabilities when a disaster strikes.
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1. Listen and learn from people with disabilities
It is amazing how little this happens.
But we will never fully understand, let alone remove, barriers that put people with disabilities at increased risk during a disaster unless we focus on their experience and expertise.
Disability organizations can play an important role in disaster policy, planning and intervention by representing their members and having their voices heard. These organizations already have a deep understanding of the factors that increase the risk of people with disabilities in an emergency.
We worked with the Queenslanders with Disability Network representatives from their Peer Leaders program to collaborate on a guide to planning disaster risk reduction for people with disabilities. It is known as a P-CEP (Person-Centered Emergency Preparedness) workbook.
The guide helps people plan their own support needs and work with government and emergency managers. This approach is already leading to fruitful new partnerships.
For example, after meeting the Queenslanders with the Disability Network Peer Leader Peter Tully, an Ipswich Council emergency manager told us, “We have a lot of work to do with the council’s disaster relief team to make the emergency centers accessible. We want to remove obstacles in order to improve disaster management including disabilities. “
In partnership with VALID (the Victorian Advocacy League for People with Disabilities) and Gippsland Disability Advocacy Inc, we are now replicating the peer leadership program for personal emergency preparedness in Victoria.
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2. Bring community, health, and disability staff to the table
For people who depend on them, community, health, and disability employees can be vital. In emergencies, they often increase the safety and well-being of people with disabilities.
Through their routine interactions in the community, these service providers know who needs what support. They know the accessible places and spaces. They know what services are available and how people with disabilities can access them during and after a disaster.
Too often, however, community and disability organizations are not adequately prepared for disasters themselves and are not integrated into emergency planning.
Government and emergency services can leverage the expertise of local service providers by:
- Liaison with local council and disabled groups
- Mobilizing local knowledge and resources to better meet the support needs of people with disabilities in emergencies.
This will enhance the ability of providers to provide emergency preparedness, improve continuity of service and improve the opportunities for people with disabilities in the event of disasters.
3. Local councils need to play a bigger role
The councils have excellent connections with community groups that are vital in building the resilience of people with disabilities before, during and after a disaster.
This year, the Mackay Regional Council partnered with our research team, including a peer leader from the Queenslanders with Disability Network. Together we introduced the toolkit for personal contingency planning for service providers in the community, health and disability sectors.
As part of this project, we identified three ways councils can better work with people with disabilities and support services:
- Create opportunities to learn from groups that have traditionally been excluded from disaster management and recovery planning. That means holding workshops and meetings that focus on listening to people with disabilities and their support networks. “
- Apply for grants to fund inclusive business continuity management efforts. The councils often employ staff who are experts in applying for and granting grants. Use the money to conduct training courses or to print out and distribute personal workbooks for emergency preparedness. The Mackay Regional Council libraries regularly hosted events to help people learn more about personal emergency preparedness. Council officials were available to assist people in preparing their contingency plan
- Lead by example and leverage relationships with community groups, sports, schools, churches, and businesses to help residents learn more about person-centered emergency preparedness. The personal emergency preparedness resources can also help people who age at home, have mental illnesses, have chronic health problems, and / or have other support needs.
By introducing the person-to-person contingency process, Mackay councilors and employees have embarked on an integrative path to build resilience.
Emergency planning at the community level now focuses on working with people with disabilities and the services that support them. This approach can only help fill the preparedness gaps that put people at higher risk in an emergency.
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Better systems for disaster planning including disability not only ensure that people receive support tailored to their needs. It has the added benefit of freeing the emergency services to focus on responding to the danger. This protects the entire community.
It increases disaster resilience for everyone.
Photo credit: Unsplash
Michelle Villeneuve, Associate Professor at the University of Sydney, first published this article on The Conversation. This article was co-authored by Helen Styles, Resilience and Recovery Officer, Emergency Management at Mackay Regional Council. The views expressed are the authors’ own.