Disaster can strike at any time, and it’s often not a matter of if, but when. If you’re in the Southeast, there is the threat of hurricanes and flooding; in the Midwest, tornadoes; in the Northeast, snowstorms; and out West, earthquakes and wildfires. When a threat looms, people often need to leave their homes quickly and unexpectedly to stay out of harm’s way; in other scenarios, they may need to be confined to their home for a length of time.
While disasters are inconvenient and worrisome for everyone, for millions of Americans with disabilities, these situations present even greater challenges due to potential reliance on electrical power, elevators, accessible transportation, and communication—all of which can be compromised during an emergency. However, by taking some precautions now, individuals with disabilities and their family and friends can be better prepared for whatever comes their way.
Emergency Preparedness for People with Disabilities
1. Emergency Kit
Basic and special needs supplies will be necessary in an emergency, and it is recommended that the kit enables you to be self-sufficient for at least 72 hours. Here are some items to consider keeping in your emergency kit:
- Water (half a gallon per day, so 3 gallons total) and non-perishable foods (canned goods, energy bars, etc.).
- Manual can opener
- Wind-up battery-powered flashlight and radio (plus extra batteries)
- First aid kit
- Spare house and car key
- Cash in small bills plus change for payphones
- Candles, matches, and a lighter
- A whistle or personal alarm (to call for help)
- Duct tape (because you never know)
- Warm blankets
- Emergency cell phone (you should also have a phone that does not require electrical power to work, such as a corded or TTY phone)
- A copy of your emergency plan and contact list (keep it in a ziplock bag in case of water damage)
- Special needs items (prescription medicine, medical alert bracelet, special equipment, pet food and water for service animals, etc.)
2. Personal Support Network
Chance are that you already have a personal support network in place, but if not, there is no time like the present. Your personal support network should consist of at least three people that you know and trust who can help you in the event of an emergency. Here are a few tips:
- Create a network for various locations, such as home, work, and school
- Give one member a key to your home
- Tell each member where your emergency kit is stored
- If you have special need equipment, show each member of your network how it operates
3. Service Animals
Your service animal can be man’s best friend—even more so in an emergency situation! However, it’s important to pack an emergency kit for them as well as yourself. Some items to include in your service animal emergency kit:
- 72-hours bottled water and pet food
- Medications and veterinarian contact information, along with medical records including vaccinations and service animal certification (keep these in a ziplock bag)
- Leash and collar
- Blanket and toy
- Current ID tag with your name and number (you should also have your service animal microchipped)
- Photo of your service animal in the event you are separated from them
A number of disabilities can limit mobility, making it challenging for individuals to use stairs or move quickly. Limitations include reliance on a wheelchair, walker, crutches, or cane; in addition, people with heart or pulmonary disease may also have difficulty walking long distances. For individuals with mobility issues, here are some things to consider:
- If you use a wheelchair or scooter and will need to access a stairwell in an emergency, request that an emergency evacuation chair be located near a stairwell on the floor where you work or live so that your network can help you evacuate.
- Check with local municipal offices to determine which emergency shelters in your vicinity are wheelchair accessible.
- If you don’t have sensitivity in some areas of your body, identify them on an emergency checklist so responders can check for injury if you cannot do so yourself.
- Item to consider in a separate emergency kit include:
- Tire patch kit, including seal-in-air product for flats and supply of inner tubes
- Heavy gloves (to protect your hands when wheeling over glass or debris)
- Spare battery for motorized chair or scooter
- A lightweight, manual backup wheelchair
- Spare catheters (if needed)
5. Non-Visible Disabilities
Just because a condition isn’t visible, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist! Some individuals may have cognitive, sensory, mental health, learning or intellectual disabilities that may impair their judgment during an emergency, while other people may have allergies, epilepsy, diabetes, pulmonary, or heart disease which require different supplies and considerations. For those with these non-visible disabilities, here are some things to consider:
- Wearing a medical alert bracelet to aid first responders in diagnosing your situation
- Creating a personal list of instructions that you understand and can easily follow in an emergency
- A minimum one-week supply of all medications and equipment (inhaler for asthma, EpiPen pen for allergic reactions, insulin/syringes, and ice packs for diabetes, etc.)
6. Hearing and Vision
The way warnings are issued for the hearing or vision impaired is different, so be sure you’re prepared and that you have the latest notification equipment. Here are some ways to help ensure you’re kept safe.
- Keep a notepad and pencil handy for written communication. You may consider creating some pre-made signs on laminated cards for quicker communication.
- Request a pager that is connected to an emergency paging system at work or residence so you’re notified of any dangers
- Install smoke detectors that employ flashing lights or vibration systems
- Keep extra hearing aids or batteries in your emergency kit
- Keep a white cane to notify people of your visual impairment and to navigate around obstacles and debris
- Identify emergency switches and valves in advance with braille labels (gas, water, electric shutoffs, etc.)
- Familiarize yourself in advance with all escape routes and locations to emergency doors and exits at home and at work. Practice your exit route a few times a year to be sure you remember it if needed.
- Keep any assistive reading technologies in your emergency kit
This list is by no means comprehensive, as need will vary by your own particular situation. However, we hope it has provided you with a good starting point and perhaps some things to think about. You can also find more information and resources about disaster preparedness for those with disabilities through the American Red Cross and the Center for Disease Control.