Disability and Disasters

By now, the world has heard of the horrific bushfires that have been ravaging Australia for the past few months. People have died, hundreds of homes have been destroyed, and our beautiful bushland has been absolutely devastated.

Living in a country with a climate as volatile as this one – if we aren’t on fire, we are probably flooding, in drought, or feeling the impacts of a cyclone – it is vital that Australians remain disaster aware and know what to do if we get early warning of a natural disaster heading through our area.

Today I want to talk about what additional steps those of us with a chronic illness or disability should take, and what we should have in our go-bags. I’m not going to recap the basics; disabled or not, everyone should be carrying water, first aid kits and food. Those of us with health issues unfortunately have extra things to worry about.

The sad truth is that people with disabilities are twice as likely to be impacted by a natural disaster as those without. In the 2011 Japanese tsunami, the mortality rate for disabled people was twice that of the non-disabled population. We are statistically less able to evacuate, or require assistance to do so, and often shelters and disaster management plans don’t take disability into account. Even once safely evacuated, we often require greater levels of health care and access to services and vital supplies such as medication. We are often not consulted by governments, local or large, when making these plans.

This is why I don’t like writing this article. For sure, disaster-preparedness is on the individual, insofar as the individual can be prepared. But disabled individuals can run into hurdles so quickly. It’s all very well to say “have a go-bag and a method of escape”, but what if you literally can’t? That’s why I want non-disabled people to read the questions below too, and think what you can do to help. If the disabled person asking themselves these questions below has to say no to everything, they may well die when disaster hits. You could be the person that steps in and changes on of the ‘no’ answers to a ‘yes’. You could be their way out of the disaster zone.

In the meantime, fellow disabled and sickly friends, these are the questions we need to consider.

1) Before it happens

Stay in the loop! Studies suggest people with disabilities are often the last to know when disaster is approaching. If you have a smart phone or internet access, sign up for notifications from your local emergency services. If you don’t, know your local emergency news channel and tune in, via radio or tv.

If you are not an electronics person, then forge relationships with people around you so that they think to alert you when trouble is coming.

2) How are you going to get away?

Not everyone with a disability is fortunate enough to be able to drive. Plenty of people who can drive can’t afford to buy or run a car. If you can’t drive or don’t have a vehicle, have you put thought into how you might evacuate in the case of a natural disaster? Do you have family, friends or neighbours whom you can rely on for transport out of there? If not, is there a support network for disabled or sick people that you can reach out to? If not, does your city or town provide any services you can utilise?

If you have limited options, you need to consider those options much earlier than able-bodied people, as it is much harder to leverage the people around you when they are also at the point of scrambling for an escape.

You also need to think about where to go. Often, public shelters are not set up to accommodate those with disability or serious illness. It is a failing of the governments providing these shelters and it sucks that we are disadvantaged by it, but if there are better alternatives out there, you may wish to consider utilising them if you can.

3) If you cannot leave, or do not want to, what is your plan?

Is your home defensible in the case of fire? If you are looking at an earthquake, flood or cyclone instead, do you have a safe place within your home you can shelter? Will you be able to fend for yourself when the power goes out? If you are physically disabled or suffer painful flare-ups and you have to climb stairs or move around obstacles to get to a safe spot, are you able to do so unassisted?

If you know you will struggle alone, do you have a friend, neighbour or carer who will be able to stay with you? If they cannot or will not stay, see if you can organise for them to check on you as soon as they are able to return to the area, or alert emergency services. See if you can get their help in getting to a safe place within your home, and ensuring you have what you need close to hand.

4) Ensure you have all your medical stuff ready

If you have to leave your area or your normal doctor is not available, it can be very hard to get the medications you need. I know of too many people with endo who have seen a new GP whilst their usual GP is on leave and been told that the new GP will not dispense their normal pain medications. If you become aware of a disaster approaching your area, consider asking your GP to give you your next batch of pain meds sooner (explaining why, of course!), or to provide you with a letter to show a new GP to encourage them to write a new script for you. Have crucial numbers – GP, specialists, family, carer and employer – written down, in case you have no internet access to look them up.

If you can, get your most important medical documents together – Medicare card, healthcare or pension card if you have one, private insurance documents if you have insurance, notes from recent procedures, etc. If you use an aid or device, whether it’s a wheelchair, hearing aid, colostomy bag, catheter, or alternative pain management  devices such as TENS machines or chargeable heat-packs, have them accessible. Make sure you also have spares, or necessary supplies like batteries or a charger.

If you have a service animal, ensure that you also have their medical stuff together, along with spare food (particularly if they need a special diet).

If you are evacuating with someone (the ideal), ensure that they are aware of your basic needs and know how to operate your equipment or help administer your medication.

5) Consider the extras

For those with endo or other diseases causing random, prolonged bleeding from the crotch, make sure you have plenty of pads or period-underpants. (You can get the Love Luna brand from Woolworths now.) If access to fresh water may be limited, look for wipes that are safe to use for the vulva so that you can keep yourself clean and help reduce the chance of infections such as thrush.

If you are prone to flare-ups, ensure that the clothes you are wearing and the clothes in your go-bag are soft, comfortable and won’t irritate sore pelvises, joints, or other pressure points. Go for quick and easy – maxi dresses, tracksuit or pjs bottoms, and t-shirts. Pack your softest, comfiest bra.

If you have a speech impairment or are deaf/hard of hearing and usually communicate through sign language, pack pen or paper – there’s a good chance evacuation may result in you being surrounded by people who have no AusLan skills and won’t be able to communicate with you properly.

If you are going to be staying, consider devices that can attract attention easily with minimal effort from you – bright torches (a good idea anyway for when power goes down) and a loud whistle or air-horn.

 

These are the five major things that I think we need to consider above and beyond the things an able-bodied person might. Some of them may not be issues for you; there may be many things I have no mentioned here that are vital considerations for you. You know yourself best and are in the best position to plan.

If you would like a more detailed resource, check out this guide by FEMA and the American Red Cross. It covers a lot of stuff and I found it a bit overwhelming, but it is much more comprehensive that what I’ve written here.

If anyone who has been evacuated or impacted by the Australian bushfires, or by any other natural disaster, would like to share their experiences and insight, please do so. This is such an important area of advocacy – lives are literally at stake – and the more information and tips we all have, the better.

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