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Md Considers Special Needs

Editor's Note: This article is reprinted from Disaster News Network (Maryland), November 23, 2004.

Columbia, Md.--People with disabilities will be better prepared for disasters if they're truly a part of emergency planning, Maryland state officials urged Monday.

Maryland's efforts on this front could become a model for the nation, because that kind of disaster planning doesn't happen often, explained Carl Cameron, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Disability Preparedness Center.

"People with disabilities have a wide variety of communications, support and health needs that differentiate them from persons without disabilities," Cameron explained.

Those needs were on the minds of nearly 200 people who attended the Maryland Department of Disabilities Regional Conference on Emergency Preparedness and Response for Individuals with Disabilities.

With four regional conferences, the state of Maryland is opening up dialogue between people with disabilities, disaster planners, service providers and others who care, said JoAnne Knapp, director of emergency preparedness policy for the Maryland Department of Disabilities.

"This is obviously very needed and we got this on the radar screen early on," she said. "These conferences are important first steps, and this dialogue will be ongoing."

Knapp and others plan to visit local communities across the state to hone in on different disabilities and potential needs.

Communications are often the most serious challenge--and the problem often starts during the warning phase of a disaster. Radio and television news about hazards may not reach people with disabilities.

Conventional weather warnings, for example, often simply don't reach people with disabilities. "What happens?" Cameron asked. "You get a beep on the television. If you're visually impaired, you hear the beep but you can't read the news crawler that has the information you need to know. If you're hearing impaired, you can't hear the beep in the first place, so you don't even know the crawler exists."

"We need multiple sources of emergency warnings," he said, and disaster planners are working on technology to solve that problem. "There's a microchip that allows individuals with disabilities to carry a card with them--a 'smartcard' that would allow emergency responders to locate people within buildings."

After the warnings phase--when a hazard turns into a disaster--comprehension may be a problem.

"The ability to comprehend is very important," he said--and so is the ability to cope. "An emotional disorder in the event of a crisis is going to be magnified," he said.

Or a learning disability can interfere with the capability to respond, he said. "Maybe there are people like me in this audience--people who have trouble with multi-step directions."

Emergency planners need to understand what it's like to disrupt the routine of people who often have very set routines, he said.

And, sometimes, standard evacuation rules will have to be flexible. "It's a simple question: when do you stay and when do you go? And who decides?"

After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, officials in Washington, D.C., couldn't seem to decide, he observed. "They couldn't even decide whether to go or stay. At the Federal Emergency Management Agency, they couldn't decide whether to let people stay or go. Then they decided to let people leave--but they closed most of the bridges and, for a time, they closed the metro."

In one government agency--which Cameron declined to name specifically-a man with hearing impairments and some visual impairment was told he had to go. "He said, 'no, I'm not going.' But the government officials kept saying: You have to go. And he kept saying no.

"But no one ever said: why won't you go?"

The man didn't leave, Cameron said, because he didn't know where to go. "He knew if he left where he was, all his support systems were gone."

Disaster planners shouldn't overlook the capability of people with disabilities to decide what's best for them. "People we think are the most prepared for emergencies are often the least prepared. And sometimes the people we think will come apart at the seams do real well."

Persons with disabilities don't need to be planned for, he said--they need to be included in the planning process and their voices need to be heard. "The way I find out about disaster simulation exercises is when they're over. Coordination needs to take place. Service providers need to talk to emergency responders and they all need to talk to people with disabilities."

Conference participant Mary Kemp said she was excited to get a dialogue going. An employee at the Freedom Center--a centre for independent living in Frederick, Md.--Kemp helps people with disabilities develop a plan to live on their own.

But right now that plan doesn't include emergency preparedness, she said--and that's unfortunate. "We need to help each person develop an individual preparedness plan," she said. "A conference like this, it shows you where your deficits are. It's just not part of what you think about--but it needs to be."

For a person with a disability, a power outage can be a disaster, she pointed out. "What about people living in their homes on a respirator? They certainly have to have a plan to cope with a power outage or that becomes a very serious disaster."

Cameron added another example: in the southeastern U.S., he said, during a hurricane, emergency evacuation transportation was dispatched for residents of a coastal community. When the bus arrived, the driver was surprised to find some people with disabilities needed a better-equipped bus. The bus driver left the people with disabilities standing by the side of the road until such a bus could be located.

"It is essential to ensure that your emergency response plan considers persons with disabilities and other special needs," he concluded.

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