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Thursday, October 16, 2014

Disaster preparedness must include people with disabilities | EDITORIAL By Mike Ervin

By Mike Ervin, Progressive Media Project | Oct 15, 2014

When the next natural disaster strikes, many people with disabilities are bound to find themselves in harm’s way due to poor disaster planning by public officials.

A lawsuit settlement reached in late September may improve access to emergency services in New York City and provide a roadmap for improving access everywhere else.

The lawsuit was filed in 2011 after Tropical Storm Irene hit New York. The lawsuit accused the city of not meeting the evacuation, transportation and sheltering needs of people with disabilities in its emergency plans.

The settlement, which needs the approval of a federal judge, requires that at least 60 shelters be capable of accommodating about 120,000 people with disabilities.

But the problem goes well beyond physical access and well beyond New York.

A report issued in June by the National Council on Disability, which advises Congress and the president on disability issues, warns: “Unfortunately, history has repeatedly shown that the concerns of people with disabilities and others with access and functional needs in emergency situations are frequently overlooked or minimized.”

The report gives the graphic example of New Jersey resident Carole Lazorisak, who is deaf. As Hurricane Sandy rapidly approached, she did not hear the evacuation warnings and instructions that were issued only verbally. The storm ripped her home off of its foundation and filled it with five feet of water. After finding her way to a local shelter, she still felt isolated because no arrangements had been made for communicating with deaf people.

According to the report, blind people are also left behind when websites with emergency information are not compatible with screen reader technology.

“The communication needs of people with disabilities are not being fully integrated by emergency managers in planning effort,” the report says.

All this is in spite of the fact that many laws, such as the American with Disabilities Act, require this type of communication to be accessible.

With the laws and technologies we have today, there is no excuse for abandoning anyone with a disability in an emergency.

It’s illegal, it’s immoral and it’s totally unnecessary.

Mike Ervin is a Chicago-based writer and disability-rights activist with ADAPT. He wrote this for Progressive Media Project. Readers may write to him at: Progressive Media Project, 409 East Main Street, Madison, Wis. 53703; email: pmproj@progressive.org.

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