In Natural Disasters, A Disability Can Be A Death Sentence

By Jenavieve Hatch

How disability rights advocates want to change the landscape of disaster response.

Several of the 88 people killed in the Camp fire that devastated Butte County, California, in November had disabilities.

Their deaths were only the latest example of a tragic reality: When disaster strikes, people with disabilities are disproportionately affected. There are no statistics that show how many disabled people in the U.S. say they could easily evacuate in an emergency, but around the world, just 20 percent of disabled people say they would be able to do so. And only 31 percent said they would have someone to help them in an emergency, according to a 2013 United Nations global survey.

Surviving a disaster is a complicated process for disabled people, with barriers every step of the way. For visually and hearing impaired people, even being alerted to an emergency isn’t as simple as it is for everyone else. For physically disabled and low-mobility individuals, a quick evacuation is extremely difficult, if not impossible ― especially in a natural disaster like the Camp fire, which raged at the rate of destroying the equivalent of one football field per second.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. By inviting disabled people into conversations about disaster preparedness and response, investing in important equipment, and mandating that disaster response teams be knowledgeable on these issues, communities can reduce fatalities and offer a more humane and inclusive response to disasters.

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