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In Emergencies, People With Disabilities Often An Afterthought


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A new report from the National Council on Disability is urging better planning and coordination to ensure that people with disabilities are not left behind in emergency situations. (Joe Burbank /Orlando Sentinel/MCT)

A new report from the National Council on Disability is urging better planning and coordination to ensure that people with disabilities are not left behind in emergency situations. (Joe Burbank /Orlando Sentinel/MCT)

Serious barriers continue to jeopardize the well-being of people with disabilities in the wake of disasters and in other emergency situations, a new federal report finds.

Problems with emergency communications systems are rampant including everything from evacuation maps and websites that are inaccessible to alerts featuring language that is unclear for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

The findings come in a report released this week by the National Council on Disability, an independent federal agency tasked with advising Congress and the president on disability issues.

Many 911 systems are still unavailable by text, the report indicates, and both shelters and televised emergency announcements often lack sign-language interpreters for those who are deaf.

During Hurricane Sandy, for example, Carole Lazorisak who is deaf, was unable to hear megaphone announcements in her Staten Island, N.Y. neighborhood about evacuation help. Days later she found herself at a shelter where there were no signs or translation services to assist her, the report said.

“The concerns of people with disabilities and others with access and functional needs in emergency situations are frequently overlooked, minimized or not even recognized until after the fact,” said Jeff Rosen, chair of the National Council on Disability.

The agency is recommending that the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the U.S. Department of Justice and the Federal Communications Commission work together to establish guidelines for local officials regarding communicating with people who have disabilities in emergency situations.

More oversight, training and collaboration with the disability community is also needed, the report indicated.

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Comments (6 Responses)

  1. Pam Smith says:

    Even something as simple as getting a hotel room, especially during an emergency. Has anyone noticed how many hotels/motels etc. have no handicap accessible rooms on the first floor. I can’t tell you how many times I have complained about this and been told “we have an elevator” and when I reply but in case of fire you can’t use the elevator, I get blank stares. The expense of the hotel makes no difference as far as I can see.

  2. Terri says:

    The thing is, if they just created the plans so they would work for people with disabilities and other challenges FIRST, it would likely accommodate all people pretty easily… but if you design your plan for people without disabilities… retrofitting to include folks with disabilities will be left out.

  3. Ellen Sanchez says:

    Recently, while at the YMCA, the fire alarms went off, vacating the premises was mandatory. I was upstairs in the workout area while my 16yo son with intellectual disabilities and anxiety played in the pool area. He was told by life guards several times to go outside. He meandered into the locker room, took off his swimsuit and approached men, while naked, asking if we were being attacked by an enemy. I went to the pool area to not find my son, I located my older son who found his brother in the locker room, major anxiety attack, wet and naked. To this day, mentioning the Y causes panic with him. Poor guy, just didn’t understand. It’s so hard to prepare for random emergencies like this.

  4. Fang Huang says:

    Besides natural disasters, fire is another issue should be concerned for people with hearing problem or deaf. Time is critical for survival during a fire.

    If the fire happens during night time, people with hearing problem or deaf can not hear the fire alarm when they fall in sleep. They may not have enough time to escape out.

    In August 2006, two days after my left knee surgery and unable to walk fast, one night at about 10:00 pm, suddenly the fire alarm went off in the building. My care provider already went home. I could not walk to lobby to see what happened. I called 911 for it. Very soon, the police and fire fighters arrived. (The fire was caused by food burning on stove in an unit in the second floor that I found out the next day.)

    The next morning, I asked a tenant in the hallway about the incident. He responded that he knew nothing about the fire because he took off his hearing aid before going to bed so he could not hear the fire alarm even the sound was loud and for a while before the fire fighters and police arrived.

    I called the fire department for it and was told that if the alarm working normally required by laws, the fire department could not do anything for the deaf tenants. It was out of fire department’s control.

    I talked to then manager about my concerns for those deaf or with hearing problem under such conditions and suggested to find a way to warm those tenants if fire happened at night time. I was responded that it was their fate and nothing could help.

    I called police department for my concerns and made comments for it, such as preparing a list of those tenants with hearing problem or deaf for the police dept and fire dept, with the name and unit number, so that they could check those units first to make sure safety of those tenants. I also suggested for a vibrated device under pillow because during sleep they could not see the light with warning signal connected to the phone.

    I was referred to other organizations for my alternative solution. I was responded that there was no such device in the market yet.

    How can we help the deaf or people with hearing problem under such emergency?

  5. Kate says:

    As to emergency notification for the deaf and hard of hearing, both NFPA 101, The Life Safety Code and the International Building Code require what is known as Visual Notification, or more commonly called in layman’s terms, strobes. These are also required in the ADA-ABA.

    Check with your community which codes are enforced in buildings, and file complaints appropriately. I’m an architect and we are required to provide visual and audio notification on ALL projects that are not 1 or 2 family dwellings.

    Each jurisdiction is different, but this notification is required by most building codes.

  6. Cathy says:

    For schools that use time-out rooms, being bolted in and forgotten should also be addressed. I worked as a substitute aide in a school system that locked children with special needs in a closet-type room and bolted the door. One day, there was a fire drill. After doing a headcount, they remembered that 2 hours before, they had put a little boy in the time-out closet. I fought this school system with my own child and removed him over this time-out room nonsense. I complained about the bolt on the door and was told it was taken off. The next time I went to that school (this was not the one in my son’s school), it was still there. I called the Vice-Superintendent and he went out and removed the bolt himself. I was told by the Head of the Special Education Department that the children of other parents were none of my concern. I told her that children that were not being treated right should be the concern of everyone. Take a look at your child’s school to see what the procedure is that your child isn’t sitting in a time-out room while the school burns around him or a tornado strikes. These are flimsy closets, not tornado safe!

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