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Hurricane Katrina and People With Disabilities

Editor's Note: This article is reprinted from the Columbus Dispatch, September 4, 2005.

What has become of the countless people with disabilities who lived and worked in the towns and cities destroyed by Hurricane Katrina?

A message posted Thursday on an email list haunts me: It was about Benilda, a quadriplegic stranded with her personal-care assistant as flood waters were rising in New Orleans. A friend had gleaned that Benilda had called 911 and pushed her Lifecall button repeatedly. As the waters rose, the friend wrote:

"Her assistant stayed as long as she could but finally had to go to the third floor. She said she couldn't check on her (Benilda) because she didn't know how to swim."

There are many Benildas and I can't stop thinking about them. One in every five Americans has a disability, so many thousands of the stranded, dead and dying in Katrina's wake are people with disabilities.

I wonder about deaf people who might not have had access to the information that the city was being evacuated and blind people who knew, but could no longer find familiar paths to safety. Or, worst of all, the people with mobility impairments whose bodies were not able to pull them to higher ground and safety.

Many did find shelter; a few of them are now housed at the Louisiana Center for the Blind, about five hours and 300 miles north of the state's devastated area. It is a place where many have learned the techniques of dealing with blindness: travelling with a long white cane, regaining literacy through the reading and writing of braille, and generally fine-tuning the adaptive techniques that make possible a full claim on independence. But last week, the Reston, La., centre became a refuge for about 40 people, doubling its usual capacity.

About a third of the refugees are blind, said Patti McGahan, who has served as part of the centre's administrative staff for 15 years. Others are friends or family of former students, and a few are people who just needed food and a place to sleep.

Every major facility in Reston, population 20,000, has opened its doors, gotten out air mattresses, set up cots and is providing food to help some in the river of refugees heading north. The Center for the Blind differs from the other shelters only in that many of those who are serving and being served are blind.

These refugees have left behind their homes and jobs, loved ones and pets, but they are among the lucky ones.

"We just don't know where many of our former students are," lamented McGahan. "With no public transportation and no communication, we just don't know if they're trapped or safe or gone."

Jim Gibbons, president of the National Industries for the Blind in Alexandria, Va., heads a network of 85 agencies around the country that employ and provide rehabilitation services to blind people. He said no one yet knows if the Lighthouse for the Blind, which provides services for the blind in New Orleans, is still standing. None of the agency's 100 or so employees, 70 of them blind, has been heard from. Gibbons said he knows for sure that a similar agency in Gulfport, Miss., was destroyed.

We're a long way from learning the stories of death and survival that are being played out, including those whose main characters were people with disabilities.

Will stories like Benilda's be twentyfold? Will there be tales of heroic acts performed both by and on behalf of people with disabilities?

What I wonder most--and perhaps fear most--is whether we will find that some lives were valued less than others.

Deborah Kendrick is a Cincinnati writer and advocate for people with disabilities.

dkkendrick@earthlink.net