Emergency Preparedness – A Common Sense Measure for the Disability Community

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Almost every day, one hears of natural and human-made disasters across the nation and around the world. The importance of emergency and disaster preparedness, particularly for people with disabilities cannot be overstated.

Emergency preparedness is everyone’s concern and responsibility, but for those of us in the disability community, it is especially important because typically, we are forgotten or remembered only as an afterthought.

During the lockdown in Boston, there were no provisions made for people who needed personal care attendants. People with disabilities who rely on public buses, trains or paratransit were forgotten and many Deaf and hard of hearing folks had no idea what was happening! Fortunately this was remedied early in the process and tragedy was averted.

In some jurisdictions, emergency management officials make plans without including input from people with disabilities, which can be potentially disastrous. Several years ago, Monroe County, in Upstate New York held a pandemic flu drill and invited the public to participate. Thirty folks with disabilities attended and found numerous deficiencies in their plan regarding our community. Fortunately a partnership was formed with the county’s Office of Emergency Planning and several disability advocacy groups and an appropriate plan that included us was written and put into place.

In some cities, there is no plan at all that includes people with disabilities. New York City was successfully sued because there were no provisions for folks with disabilities in its emergency preparedness plan.

While Colorado has made great strides in reaching out to our community and including us in disaster planning and emergency preparedness, it is still up to folks with disabilities to be prepared. Don’t depend on others to think of you. Make a plan and use it!

Contrary to common belief, preparing for an emergency isn’t complicated or expensive. It also shouldn’t be scary or stressful, but seen as a common sense measure that anyone should take.

What are some things that you can do to prepare for an emergency?

Emergency Kit

Make an emergency kit in case you have to shelter in place (stay home) during a disaster. Try to store enough food and water, etc., for 3 to 7 days or more. Don’t get those expensive kits you see in stores, make your own. It’s easy – all you do is get a large bin or two and over time put the food, water and other items that you need in it.

You’ll need at least one gallon of water per person per day for drinking, cooking and hygiene. Don’t forget your service animal or pet; they get a gallon a day, as well. This is easy if you buy bottled water. If you buy one bottle or one gallon when you’re shopping, buy two. Do that over time, and you’ll soon have enough.

The same goes for food. Buy non-perishable items (food that you don’t have to put in the refrigerator) like ramen noodles, canned goods, dried fruits, peanut butter, crackers, and fun snacks for the kids. Remember, you don’t have to do this all at once. When you buy a package of ramen noodles or a can of vegetables, if you have extra money, buy two, and put the extra one in your emergency bin.

Don’t forget things like toothpaste, a toothbrush, soap, toilet paper, hand sanitizer, a flashlight, batteries and a first aid kit. Don’t get the huge expensive ones; you can find small, inexpensive ones at any grocery store. Usually, they are only a couple of dollars. The same goes for flashlights and batteries – get the less expensive ones. Remember, this can be done over time! Also, have a list of all your medicines and what they are for, your doctor’s name and the name of your home health agency (if you have one) on it.

To-Go Bag

Pack a knapsack with extra clothing and supplies, including important papers (birth certificate, prescriptions, marriage license, insurance papers, Medicaid and/or Medicare cards, Social Security paperwork, etc.) in case you have to leave home. Grab stuff around the house to put in it, and keep that near the door or if you have a car or van, store it there, along with some water and food. If you work, have a small bag there, as well, just in case something happens and you cannot leave. Again, remember – this can be done over time, so don’t stress!

Disability-related Items

If you are able, try to have extra things related to your disability on hand, if you can, especially medications. Frankly, this is probably the only area that you may run into some issues – usually due to insurance or nursing restrictions – but a lot of this can be worked around. If you have diabetes and regularly test your blood sugar, you will want to have an extra glucometer in your bag. Many companies give these out for free or very low cost. If you use a bicycle pump to put air in your manual wheelchair tires, consider having an extra one on hand. Try working with your doctor, home health care agency, and insurance company to see what it is that you may have more of in case of an emergency.

Also, if you are a client of your local department of vocational rehabilitation, your counselor may be able to help you obtain extra items related to your disability. For people transitioning out of institutional settings back into your home, particularly under your state’s Money Follows the Person program (in Colorado, it’s known as Colorado Choice Transition, or Nursing Facility Transition and Diversion Program, as it’s called in New York); some small disability-related items may be covered by some of the monies used to help you transition – be sure to ask your case manager or transition coordinator!

Communication Plan

Another important thing to have is a communication plan. This is easy – write (or have someone write for you) down all of the numbers of your family members, close friends and caregivers, if any, and keep them in your emergency bin, to-go bags, and on you, if possible. It is very important to include folks who live out of town. Why? Because if something big happens and the phones are tied up, it’s very possible that you’ll be able to reach folks who live out of town or in another state, especially if you have a cell phone.

In fact, if you have a cell phone it will be easier to call out of the region because typically, it’s the local lines that are busy or tied up. Let your out-of-town loved ones know that you are safe, and have them do the same for you if something happens in their area. Better still, with cell phones, you can text out (or have someone do it for you, if possible) because texting doesn’t take up the bandwidth and space that a normal call would. Texting plans often come with most cell plans these days, and are not expensive.

Escape and Meet-Up Plans

Go through your house with a friend, loved one or caregiver and count the doors and windows. These are possible escape routes in case something happens. While you’re at it, take notice of bathrooms or places in your house with no windows or very small ones. These can be used as safety areas in case of a tornado.

Now, go through your neighborhood with a friend or loved one. Count the number of streets near your house in all directions. Make note of streets where buses travel and what the route numbers are. Now, write down how you will get to these streets from every entrance and exit of your house so that you can get out of your neighborhood, if you have to.

Take note of places like stores and parks or fields, as well. Why? Because these can serve as meeting locations for you and your family, caregivers loved ones and friends. Write down how you will get to these locations (walking, wheeling, bus or driving) from your house (all entrances and exits) and share it so that everyone will know.

If there is a fire station in your neighborhood, stop in and let them know who you are and where you live so that they will know to help you once they are able. Check with them about services like reverse 911 so that you can be aware if there are dangers in your area or if you must evacuate.

Remember this doesn’t have to be frightening; it can be lots of fun especially if you have children or grandchildren!

If you live alone or do not have family close by, don’t worry. Contact your local Independent Living Center; these are non-residential places where people with disabilities can go to learn independent living skills, get peer counseling or mentoring (from folks who have disabilities, as well), get information and referral, and advocacy, all at no cost! Every state has at least one (some have as many as ten or twenty) ILC; they may be able to help you put together a plan.


Sometimes you may have to evacuate (leave) your home and go to a shelter that has been set up by local agencies. Take your go-bag with you! These shelters must be accessible to everyone, including folks with disabilities, so the vast majority will be wheelchair accessible (people who use wheelchairs can get in). Also, if you have a service animal (dogs and maybe cats) that animal can be with you at the shelter; don’t let anyone tell you otherwise! Have records of the animal’s shots, etc. with you, as shelters now require this. You don’t have to prove that the animal is a service animal, but if you have their harness or papers, bring them with you to avoid possible hassles.

If you require a special diet, please let the shelter know, but also understand that they may not be able to do that, so if possible, bring some of your food with you. Bring your medicines (they should be in your go-bag!) because shelters generally won’t have meds, but may be able to help you get them, if you have your prescription with you.

Sheltering In Place

Sometimes, it is impractical, even dangerous for people with disabilities to evacuate. This is very rare, but there are those with ventilators and complex medical equipment that keeps them alive. They know that often, there are no accessible vehicles that can transport them. They also know that shelters may not be able to accommodate their needs. Even hospitals, so used to caring for people with common conditions and disabilities, can be a disastrous setting because health professionals most likely will not be familiar with that equipment and unwittingly cause tragedy due to their ignorance.

Those people, if their homes have little damage, have power and heat, and the disaster event is unlikely to spread to them will choose to shelter in place, that is, stay in their homes. Alert first responders in advance if this is your situation.

How Can I Learn More?

If all this sounds exciting and you want to learn more, including how you can help your neighbors, consider taking a CERT class and becoming a CERT. CERT stands for Community Emergency Response Team (In Denver, Colorado, it’s Community Emergency Response Training). CERTs are ordinary people who help first responders during a disaster or emergency. Most areas have a local CERT. You can learn lots of helpful things like how to deal with stress during an emergency, how to help as many people as possible in the shortest amount of time, how to decide if it’s safe to enter a building to rescue someone, and very basic first aid. It’s all free and people with all kinds of disabilities can take the class and become CERTs! I know. I’m almost totally blind and have mobility issues, and I’m not only a CERT, I teach it, and design CERT programs! I’ve recruited people in wheelchairs, seniors, Deaf people and people on the autism spectrum to become CERTs. Even kids can and do become CERTs!

Summing up

Preparing for an emergency isn’t scary, stressful, difficult or expensive, and can be done over time. It’s simple, common sense stuff that anyone can do. If you need help, contact an independent living center or your case manager or transition coordinator. If possible, visit your neighborhood fire station and let them know you live in the area so they can help, if needed.

If you want to learn how to prepare for specific disasters, click here.

Don’t put off making an emergency preparedness plan. It could save your life.

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