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UN: disabilities 'ignored and neglected' in disaster planning

In the first study of its kind, the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, or ODRR, recently surveyed more than 5,000 people with disabilities in 126 countries around the world about their prospects for rescue in a major disaster that required evacuation. People with disabilities end up suffering or dying far more often in natural disasters such as floods, extreme weather, tornados, droughts and earthquakes -- the top five disaster risks found by researchers.

Why? This study revealed a key factor -- the needs of people with disabilities aren’t taken into account by many official disaster plans.

“The results of this survey are shocking,” the ODRR’s leader said. “It clearly reveals that the key reason why a disproportionate number of disabled persons suffer and die in disasters is because their needs are ignored and neglected by the official planning process in the majority of situations.”

To illustrate that point, consider three simple suggestions made by survey respondents for how communities could help make significant improvements for people with disabilities:

  • Don’t use color codes in disasters -- they’re not helpful to the blind and visually impaired
  • Don’t rely on sirens alone, as people with hearing disabilities can’t hear them
  • Take wheelchair access into consideration in official disaster plans

In industrialized countries like the U.S., we assume that people with disabilities will be included in our disaster recovery and evacuation plans, but that has not always proved to be the case. For example, in hurricanes Katrina and Rita, at least one-fifth of those who died were in hospitals and nursing homes.

As many as 6 percent of survey respondents predicted they had no chance of escape in the event of a disaster. Fully 74 percent said they would be able to evacuate but would have at least some degree of difficulty doing so.

While official disaster preparedness planning must take people with disabilities into account, it seems that individuals could be more prepared, as well. Only 3 out of every 10 participants said they had their own disaster plan, such as having sufficient food, water and medication for an extended wait for a rescue. Only 17 percent said they were aware of their community’s official plan.

We all need to do better at planning for major weather emergencies and natural disasters, and that’s even more true for people who need extra help. Do you have your own disaster plan in place?

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