Transcript of Get Ready Report podcast Episode 24 (Part 1):

Preparing for disasters: Information for people with disabilities, part 1

This transcript is part 1 of an interview with Danielle Bailey, MPH, a research assistant for the Oregon Office on Disability and Health. Interviewed by Teddi Dineley Johnson, APHA.

Good morning Danielle and thanks for joining us today.
Thanks for having me.

So we talk a lot about the importance of emergency preparedness. Does preparedness vary for people with disabilities?
Well, I think every individual, no matter who you are, you need to take the basic steps in emergency planning, such as those things like first identifying what types of emergencies can happen in your area and things such as developing communication plans, evacuation plans and putting together emergency kits. However, achieving this level of preparedness, it varies greatly for a person with a disability because of the level of attention and planning required to address their specific needs.

So, an example, when thinking about evacuation and exit routes out of your home or place of work that could be on the third floor, a person who uses a power wheelchair’s plan will differ than someone in the general population. The level of detail may include things such as having a back-up manual chair, having a battery charging plan for your chair, identifying safe places if evacuation is not possible, identifying all the accessible exit routes and ensuring those exit routes are free of clutter or large objects that could fall and block the path of travel and then identifying support people. You want to identify coworkers, neighbors, friends that work, or are close to you at home who will assess if need be to ensure your safety in an emergency.

Different people have different disabilities, so if you have a disability such as in mobility, vision, speech, hearing or mental/emotional disability, what are some preparedness tips that can keep you safe?
No matter the disability, best practice is for individuals to sit down with someone who knows them well. I would suggest a spouse, family member, friend, care provider, and based on your lowest anticipated level of functioning, decide what activities of living you are able to do for yourself and what help you may need before, during and after an emergency. You want to make a list of your personal needs and resources for meeting those during an emergency so you want to ask questions around your daily routine.

Think about personal care, think about any adaptive equipment you would use, any special diet, to what you eat, any type of battery-powered equipment, transportation  — how are you running errands, how do you get to places you need to go — medications and medical supplies, durable medical equipment. And then evacuation, things like service animals, and then communication. For example a person who is deaf and hard of hearing going through this process may trigger plans around emergency notification. So have you checked to identify how your local county or city communicates disasters? And if they don’t address your needs, how are you going to address those gaps? Do you have backup batteries for hearing aid devices? Is your home equipped with visual and vibrating alert devices? Are you aware of the local emergency report systems that broadcast in things such as captioning or screen scrolls? And then, ultimately, how are you going to communicate with others who may not be familiar with American Sign Language? Do you have a basic kind of pen and paper stored in with you emergency supplies? You can use things such as a picture communication board or key phrase cards with statements such as “I use ASL, I need an interpreter,” or say “I cannot hear sirens or alarms.”

Another tip I think is really just getting local: Do you know your neighbors? Do your local fire and rescue know who you are? Do you have possibly in your community a volunteer emergency registry? And then have you had discussion about what you may need with your primary care physician specifically around emergency planning. I think that’s a big surprise and people don’t generally bring that up with their primary care physician.

Other things: I think in a lot of communities I don’t know if people are familiar with community emergency response teams or CERT teams. Some communities have neighborhood emergency teams and this is where average citizens, disability and non-disability, you can become a super emergency response person in your community. I do think it’s good for individuals with disabilities to get involved with those groups because, in turn, you’re teaching others how to address people with disabilities as well. I think another good tool is to really identify the philanthropic groups in your community often times those organizations have taken on the role to address emergency preparedness in their communities and so it’s a good idea to get in touch with some of those groups as well.

Disaster supply kits include some basic items, but what additional items might go into these disaster supply kits of people with disabilities?
I think when we talk about disaster kits everybody has to remember that there are two types everyone should have. First of all, the 72-hour kit — the one that you would use if you were forced to shelter at home — and the other type of kit everyone should have is what we refer to as a grab-and-go kit with the items that you can store easily in a bag or backpack that you can quickly grab and generally it provides supplies for one person for a 24-hour period.

But what I like to tell people when they’re putting together emergency kits, the number one rule is the kit needs to be very, very specific to their needs. So if you’re a person and you have limited dexterity then you want to include things in your grab and go bag or your 72-hour kit that you can easily open, including food items that you can easily open that don’t have a lot of details and aren’t tricky. When you think about clothes, think about a pull over sweat shirt or sweat pants versus clothing that requires buttons or zippers.

Another example: Individuals who can only drink out of a straw, include straws in your bag, or if you use a manual wheelchair you may want to think about having some type of hand protection, such as leather gloves. Think about backup batteries for hearing aids, extra canes, and of course you need to have a plan around your medication and ensure you have copies of current prescriptions. If possible, at least have a seven-day supply of medication. This should be allowable through most insurances if you refill your medication on the first day possible. I think there are a lot of questions around psychotropic medications or controlled substances and, again, those are conversations that you need to have with your physician.

Kits just need to be very, very specific to an individual. I think that there is a lot of information out there, like what to put in kits and that type of thing, but you need to make sure, as an individual, that you can use each and every single one of those things. Another good rule of thumb is that basically you want to store your supplies or your grab-and-go bag in a very accessible spot, not on the top shelf of a closet but possibly by your bed or in an exit route. And then also you need to have your grab-and-go bags where you spend significant amount of time so you should have one at your home, school, work, your community inclusion program, and even your car.

How can people with disabilities enhance their ability to safely shelter in place or stay put if told to do so following an event?
I already mentioned before that individuals can build their 72-hour kit. In that way, they can ensure they have food, water supplies, medications and so forth to sustain them for that time period. In addition, I really encourage individuals with disabilities to create support groups. These support groups can include neighbors who live close by who can provide assistance if need be or to check-in. These individuals, you trust them, you’ve asked them before to help you in an event of an emergency, you’ve developed plans with them and they’re aware of your needs, where you keep your emergency supplies, they may even have a set of your keys, and they know who your other emergency contacts are as well. And then also as a safety net, individuals with disabilities as I mentioned, through their communities have some type of community registry or something in place where first responders are notified that you may need extra assistance in an emergency however they should only be part of your plan and not what should be more a safety measure and not the whole purpose of your plan.

If you have a disability and you’re told to evacuate, how can you be sure a shelter will meet your specific needs?
Unfortunately, although we’re living in a society of Title II Americans with Disabilities Act, there’s no guarantees that a shelter will be accessible to all your needs. In emergency shelters, there’s a lot of parts, including drop-off areas, entrances, the path of travel within the facility, toilet rooms, showering facilities, accessible communication methods, sleeping aids, medication storage, back-up power, service animals, you know, everything that goes into a shelter. And then, ultimately, the training of shelter staff to address individuals with disabilities, so there’s a lot that goes into that.

What I like to tell individuals is to get involved beforehand, work with your local disability groups, your county emergency management planners and the (American) Red Cross. Let them know there are people in your community who have specific needs that will need to be addressed in an emergency, (and that) you’re willing to help out to ensure to work with them to verify that shelters are accessible. On a positive note, I do think there is a lot of positive work in states around this issue and there’s also a lot of great resources and guides on websites. I think a really good guide that is out there is from the National Organization on Disability. They have a tool — a guide for emergency management planners and responders. I know South Carolina, their interagency of office of disability health, this is a project that they work on, and also the Kansas disability and health program — this is a project they are focusing on as well.

What should you do if a caregiver or family member cannot get to you because roads are blocks or the disaster has affected them as well?
Again, this is where the importance of building support groups is crucial. You want to build support groups with as many individuals as possible where you spend the most time. So you want to have support groups at your work, at school, at home. These are individuals who are committed to your well-being and safety, they’re fully aware of your needs ahead of time, your support group is aware of your emergency plans, communication plans, evacuation plans and you practice these plans with them on a reoccurring basis. These individuals can be anybody: They can be your friends, your family, neighbors, co workers, personal care attendants and roommates.

Read the second half of this interview in “Preparing for disasters: Information for people with disabilities, part 2.”

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