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Monday, March 15, 2010

Natural Disasters and Disability

Natural disasters are not obvious discriminators.  As witnessed in Hurricane Katrina, Haiti, and most recently in Chile, they wreak havoc and cause devastation for whoever gets caught in their path.  But from a disability perspective, these events carry a special significance.  Apart from creating disabilities amongst people who are caught in their wake, too often the needs of people with disabilities are not taken into account in disaster planning.

Sadly, Hurricane Katrina demonstrated this. Temporary shelters lacked accessible entrances and restrooms; people with disabilities were separated from their families, who often provide them support; and evacuees were displaced without assistive technologies. The National Organization on Disability reported that less than 30 percent of shelters had access to American sign language interpreters; 80 percent lacked TTYs; 60 percent did not have televisions with open caption capability; and only 56 percent had areas where oral announcements were posted. Moreover, people with disabilities had no centralized source of disability-related information, and relief workers had not been trained to assist them.

There is a growing academic literature on natural disasters, but disability consciousness has not been at the forefront of these efforts.  (The first comprehensive book for use in law schools on natural disasters has several chapters on vulnerable population, but nothing specifically on people with disabilities). I have written about reforms at the federal level, and advocates for people with disabilities have also brought lawsuits under the Americans with Disabilities Act to get cities and states more proactively involved in pre-disaster planning.  But lawsuits are not a great vehicle to create change here: policymakers need to be taking these issues into account on the front end.  To quote the great John Wooden, failing to prepare is preparing to fail.  At the international level, Article 11 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities provides a basic standard to supplement other international protocols.

More optimistically, the devastation created by natural disasters offers an opportunity to rebuild the environment and infrastructure so it will be accessible to people with disabilities to the greatest extent possible.  I saw these opportunities first-hand on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi after Katrina, and the UN and the Global Partnership for Disability and Development are taking a leading role in addressing these issues in Haiti.  

Several of us who teach and research in disability law are exploring the idea of putting together an AALS proposal for professional development on this issue, which brings together different areas of property law, human rights law, civil rights, development, and health law.  More info to follow...   



Posted by Michael Waterstone on March 15, 2010 at 02:08 PM | Permalink


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Notably, federal agencies do make specific plans for helping their own employees with disabilities at their own facilities in the event of emergencies, I presume due to a mandate from the General Services Administration.

But, federal employees with disabilities are often among the least vulnerable of the disabled, and preparing for an emergency at a particular federal facility is far short of comprehensive planning for a disaster.

This issue is an entirely predictable and reasonable thing to plan for, but also not one with an obvious solution, because it isn't obvious how planning should be incorporated into the overall picture, something that could differ from one disability to another. Moreover, a plan with any meaningful level of complexity is likely to be abandoned when disaster actually strikes. There is a tendency to make plans more complex than it practicable.

For deaf individuals, for example, a procedure to identify that there is someone who can't hear present, and to mandate that communications mediated via writing where someone who can't hear is present (by an untrained literate draftee if necessary) rather than an ASL interpreter or TTY, may be the most practical solution during a disaster.

For those who are blind or have mental health issues, or require sustained medical attention or have mild mobility issues, a buddy system that keeps individuals with people who can support them, or assigns a buddy to people with no support, may be the best solution.

Infrastructure, or a specialized shelter or transportation provisions, may be the only solution for those with severe mobility issues.

Posted by: ohwilleke | Mar 16, 2010 4:06:10 PM

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