The Federal Emergency Management Administration is celebrating Preparedness Month all through September and, quite frankly, it couldn’t come soon enough: Two Category 4 hurricanes have made landfall (Harvey, Irma) with catastrophic flooding and more storms have been circling in the Atlantic (Jose and Katia). There are fires in the western US and an earthquake off the coast of Mexico. Amid these events, there are smaller emergencies happening in communities across the country. We hope you and your family have taken the time to plan for your safety. You can also help plan in your community. The preparedness theme for this week is Plan to Help your Neighbor and Community. Everyone can contribute to emergency preparedness in their area, including people with disabilities. Here are a few ways anyone can help.
Make sure you and your family are prepared. One of the best ways you can help emergency managers in your area is to be ready and safe. Heed calls to evacuate if needed. Make sure you have medications, power needs, and assistive devices addressed before the disaster happens. Know your escape routes and nearby shelters. Make sure your pets and service animals have tags and/or microchips. If you need to shelter in place, gather water, food, and other supplies for three to seven days. Learn more about how to prepare with these Emergency Preparedness resources from the Rehabilitation Research and Training Center on Community Living (RTC/CL) at the University of Kansas.
Be an information source for yourself and first responders. Use the Map Your Neighborhood tool (PDF) from the RTC/CL to alert emergency responders to vulnerable people, potential dangers such as gas lines or tanks, and other hazards and supports in your immediate area.
Be the communication hub for your family, neighbors, or circle of friends and relay updates from reliable information sources such as the FEMA app and website or your state’s emergency management agency. Be a check-in point for family and friends to stay in touch. Create a private Facebook page or use group texts or emails to exchange information. You may want to stock up on rechargeable power packs to keep your cell phone or laptop charged if the power goes out.
Get involved in community preparedness. Consider taking a course like Community Emergency Response Training (CERT) or an independent study course like Community Preparedness: Implementing Simple Activities for Everyone to identify ways you can be a helping hand in a disaster or local emergency. A basic first-aid course can also teach you important skills which could come in handy at any time. Sign up for and attend any preparedness drills your community may hold – you’ll be prepared and all the participants will have a more inclusive preparedness experience. Here are some Dos and Don’ts for community preparedness for people with disabilities (PDF) from the RTC/CL.
Help get neighbors where they need to be. After a disaster, transportation can be a big challenge for people with disabilities. If you have access to an accessible vehicle, such as a van, and can accommodate passengers with mobility disabilities, contact a local independent living center, dialysis center, or hospital and let them know your availability. Make sure everyone in your household is safe and the authorities have opened the roads to traffic before venturing out. Here are some examples of volunteer transportation programs (PDF) across the US from the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging.
If you need to help someone with a disability, remember some basic disability etiquette (from A Guide to Interacting with People who have Disabilities [PDF] by the Department of Health and Human Services):
- For all individuals, respect someone’s physical body and personal space. Ask before touching or holding a part of a body or an assistive device.
- Interact directly with the person with a disability, rather than their companion or personal attendant. Communicate clearly and comprehensibly. Be prepared to write things down if needed.
- Treat adults as adults. Don’t assume informality or use patronizing tone or language.
- Be mindful of service animals but don’t interact with them. They may be “on duty,” providing safety and support to their person and should not be distracted. Don’t assume a service dog handler has a visual impairment: Not all service animals are guide dogs, some provide physical support, retrieve fallen items, alert their person to noise or seizure potentials, and assist with many other tasks.
- When assisting someone with a visual impairment, never take their arm or cane, or take the lead from their service animal. Ask whether they would like to take your arm to be led to safety. Describe obstacles and, when you reach a safe spot, describe the nearest seating location or hand-hold.
- When assisting someone who is Deaf or hard-of-hearing, use visual cues (wave or signal) to get their attention. Don’t yell or speak slowly. Face the person so they may read your lips and speak at a normal pace and volume. If there is an interpreter, speak to the person directly, not to the interpreter. If no interpreter is available, have pen and paper or a whiteboard handy if possible.
- When assisting someone who uses a wheelchair or other mobility device, ask before attempting to push, pull, or turn the device. Don’t speak loudly or slowly to the person unless you know their communication needs.
- When assisting someone who has an intellectual or developmental disability, be patient, flexible, and supportive. You may need to use shorter sentences and clearer language, even visual aids to ensure they understand.
For more tips on interacting with people with disabilities as a rescuer or first responder, see this mobile TIPS for First Responders page from Texas A&M University.