Disasters Have a Disproportionate Impact on People with Disabilities

Disasters Have a Disproportionate Impact on People with Disabilities

  • Those with physical disabilities can be at risk when evacuating if assistance is not available.
  • Individuals with cognitive impairments may struggle with understanding instructions that must be followed for safety.
  • The blind and hearing impaired, may have difficulty communicating during the emergency.
  • All these factors can increase the degree of risk in disaster situations with disabled individuals.
  • The Number of People with Disabilities is Huge* People with disabilities account for more than 12% of the US population  and they are desperately need public programs to increase their planning for emergency preparedness.

There are over One Billion People Around the World Who Live with Disabilities.

Following the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in Japan, the fatality rate for persons with disabilities was up to four times higher than that of the general population.

Disability has been defined differently again and again across federal agencies. For example, in 2003, there were no fewer than 67 US federal statutory definitions of disability that confuse eligibility for services and supports.

BLAH BLAH BLAH ! Definitions, definitions, rules, rules, discussions, meetings, meetings, conferences, and more. Typical governmental inefficiency, focusing on everything but the real issue here.

We don’t need all this stalling. We need to take action that will help prevent needless deaths in disaster situations for millions of people considered disabled. If as much time and money that was poured into years of useless meetings ( all over the world, the travel, and of course, what “Business” doesn’t have expensive luncheons for tax write-offs) this issue would be completely solved. These people doing this need to be ashamed for every life that was lost to disasters in the meantime!

Inequalities in Preparedness

There is insufficient data on emergency planning for people with disabilities and the elderly, but what is available shows this is a very dangerous time for these people. Our primary concern is that inadequate attention and research have gone into determining the things that are of most importance to them during times of emergency or in disaster situations. Now when disabled people are in a disaster they have to be prepared to take care of themselves as much as they can. I have put together a list of bug-out survival items to help these people be as prepared to survive as well as possible

Why are people with disabilities among the first victims of  disasters?

Fact: People with disabilities are less likely to be evacuated and are especially vulnerable during disasters and emergencies.

  • Disabled people are in fact among the groups considered as being more at risk of suffering negative effects from natural  disasters. They are often not reached in time by the early warning systems that alert the public, contributing to their vulnerability.   
  • Using mass media to broadcast instructions to the public is a necessity.
  • Only 20% say that they can evacuate immediately without difficulty in the event of a sudden disaster, the rest could only  do so with a certain degree of difficulty.
  • 6% would not be able to evacuate at all.
  • 71% of respondents do not have an individual preparedness plan for natural disasters.
  • Only 31% always have someone to help them to evacuate.
  • 13% have no one to help them. 
  • Only 17% of respondents are aware of their community’s disaster preparedness plan.
  • Only 14% are consulted during the preparation of these disaster preparedness plans.

People with Disabilities Need to Prepare for Disaster

The same challenge also applies to the elderly and other special needs populations. Provided below is a link to a booklet to help people with disabilities prepare and emergency plan to protect themselves, family, friends, personal assistant, and others in their support network in the event of an emergency.

Preparing for Disaster for People with Disabilities and other Special Needs
Preparing for Disaster for People with Disabilities and other Special Needs


FEMA and the Red Cross talk a good game, but the disability community is skeptical as to their capabilities to actually protect those in need!

According to the nation’s leading experts on disability and disaster response, we’re not ready. In fact, thanks to changes at the FEMA and clashes between disability groups and the American Red Cross, we might be even less prepared than we were a year ago. Every natural disaster quickly becomes a story about disability. The worst cases from last year-the elderly trapped in a nursing home in Texas or dying in a Florida nursing home.

Then there was a Puerto Rican baby who needed a ventilator to breathe and had to flee the island then fight for health care on the mainland.

These all reveal the ways that a disaster exacerbates pre-existing vulnerability. Behind these dramatic stories, disabled people routinely find themselves turned away from shelters and unable to access emergency messaging, or else they just generally find that emergency responses weren’t designed with the needs of disabled people in mind.

Meanwhile, we’re just beginning to understand how terrible last year’s  storms were.

“I was looking for help and no one came,” said Maria Gonzalez Munoz, who spent 30 days after the storm caring for her disabled sister in her blacked-out home. Ramona Gonzalez, 59, died a month after the storm, from sepsis — caused, says her family, by an untreated bedsore. The Gonzalez home is 3 miles (4.8 kilometers) from the convention center that served as headquarters for thousands of federal and local emergency responders for more than a month after the storm. Maria and her brother took Ramona to a hospital twice, and tried to get her aboard a Navy medical ship in San Juan harbor, but couldn’t save their ailing sister.

Although officially only 64 people died in Puerto Rico owing to Hurricane Maria, the actual death toll is at least 4,600. It is estimated that at least 1 third died from “interruption of medical care”. Nursing home residents and those dependent on life-sustaining equipment were disproportionately affected.

Growing numbers of persons have chronic diseases and use sophisticated pharmaceutical and mechanical support that is dependent on electricity. Chronically ill patients are particularly vulnerable to disruptions in basic utilities, which highlights the need for these patients, their communities, and their providers to have contingency plans that provide electricity along with safe medication, food and water during and after disasters.

When government (FEMA) FAILS to get the job done, they feel that non-profits can pick up the slack? What kind of reasoning is that? The American Red Cross has a Congressional Charter empowering it to provide disaster relief. Here too discrepancies have been found between a positive message from the Red Cross and the concerns of the disabled in a disaster say experts. It sounds to many of us like the “Buck is being passed around quite a bit”, but not to where it needs to go.

Many disability experts and organizational leaders feel that their relationship with the Red Cross has never been worse.

The Red Cross is trying to choose which disability organizations they’ll talk to, rather than allowing disabled leaders to take the lead. The whole model is being reevaluated because “responsibility for the civil rights of people with disabilities is relegated to volunteers.”(?) It is unacceptable that people with disabilities need to rely on the kindness of strangers to get their basic needs met.

Two things should be clear when we discuss recent disasters:

  1. Last year’s death toll in Puerto Rico reflects a colossal failure of our disaster preparation and response system.
  2. The experts from the disability community are worried, but it may already be too late.

Disaster Preparedness and Needs of Older Adults

An estimated 14 million people aged 65 or older living outside an institution reported in a census that they had some level of disability, mostly linked to chronic conditions.

Frail older adults – defined as those with serious, chronic health problems – are more likely than the healthier or younger population to need extra assistance to evacuate, survive, and recover from a disaster.

At least 13 million older adults (50 years or older) in the U.S. say they would need help to evacuate during a disaster, and about half of these would require help from someone outside their household.

Before hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, adults 60 or older made up only 15% of the population of New Orleans, Louisiana. However, 71% of those who died because of the hurricane were over 65. 

During the 1995 heat wave in the Midwest, the median age of the 465 people in Chicago whose deaths were heat-related was 75.

The ever growing numbers of the aging population give an even greater urgency to addressing the emergency needs of older adults following a disaster.

The U.S. population 65 or older is expected to almost double in size within the next 25 years. By 2030, some 72 million people – almost one of every five Americans will be 65 or older. People 85 or older are the fastest growing segment of the U.S. population.

Disasters and people with disabilities: Key Issues

  • They may encounter physical barriers like stairs when they need a ramp , obstacles to communication and other barriers that stop them from reacting efficiently and using the various services offered in the recovery period.
  • In earthquakes people in wheelchairs cannot crawl under desks and tables.
  • People with sight or hearing problems may be unable to recognize the signs of danger or orders to evacuate.
  • Evacuation problems: difficulties of movement: distance to be traveled, doors or passageways too narrow, presence of steps or other obstacles, unsuitable lifts or ramps, orientation difficulties, perception of hazards and warnings, and emergency response co-ordination.
  • Disabled people who depend on electrically-powered life-support equipment may find themselves in danger if there is no current during the emergency. And then we find that the evacuation center is not accessible to disabled people.    

According to recent studies in the USA: 

  • 19.3% of the U.S. population suffers from some form of disability, 
  • 80% of emergency managers have no procedures for people with disabilities, 
  • 57% of emergency managers do not know how many people with disabilities live in their areas,
  • only 27% of emergency managers have taken a FEMA course on helping disabled people in disasters.
  • It is easy not to recognize the type of disability of a person and thus offer the wrong kind of assistance. People with disabilities need procedures, special preparations, and plans to help them face disasters.

However, “in some ways, disabled people who manage to live with a certain degree of independence are more able to face disaster than people who are not disabled. They have a ‘psychological advantage’…”

Organizations that respond to disasters also need to be more concerned about the needs of individuals such as people with disabilities whose  inputs have not been listened to. 

In emergency planning and management, the needs of people with disabilities have not been sufficiently taken into consideration.

Typically, civil protection systems are designed for people who do not have disabilities: usually, evacuation plans require, in some measure, the ability to walk, drive, see and hear.

Some of Disabled People’s Needs in Major Emergencies

  • Training and preparation
  • Emergency communications need to be accessible and reliable
  • Personal care items and equipment
  • Actions to handle the high dependence on essential services (water, electricity, etc.)
  • How to manage when there is chaos or debris at home
  • Transport and mobility
  • Evacuation and assistance
  • Careful resupply with essential goods
  • How to ask for assistance
  • The needs of guide dogs 

In emergency planning no one strategy works for all types of disabilities but we need to get good repeatable plans in place. It is a “Team Effort” !

About David Kennedy

I am a retired Senior Development Engineer for Hughes Aircraft Company. I retired from Hughes In 1997 and moved to Phoenix with my young daughter to be with my two older sons attending Arizona State University. I am a former member of the U.S. Air Force where I was an active member of the 95th Fighter Interceptor Squadron.
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