nobody's perfect | Get me out of here: emergency planning for those with a disability

Written by Sister Karen Zielinski, OSF. Posted in November

Iwas glad I was not at the Las Vegas concert the night the gunman tragically shot innocent people.

I thought about people there who had to evacuate quickly. This must have been a frightening and challenging thing to do with thousands of people, full of shock and fear. Then I thought, “What would I do with my electric cart, trying to drive out of the area in the night, with people running all over?” Besides trying to leave a dangerous area and go to a safer place, I know there would be the challenges of physical barriers for those in wheelchairs or using carts or canes.


Physical barriers are structural obstacles in natural or manmade environments that prevent or block mobility (moving around in the environment) or access. Examples of physical barriers include steps and curbs that block a person with mobility impairment from entering a building or using a sidewalk, non-paved walkways where a person might get stuck in soft earth, and just trying to negotiate leaving quickly. It can be challenging using your wheelchair or electric cart when people might be running all over and you have to leave without hitting a pedestrian.

Accessible emergency management

I checked with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to find out what type of plan they had for those who use wheelchairs, electric carts, or walkers and canes when they find themselves in a weather catastrophe or safety crisis. FEMA did have a plan for those who had mobility limitations.

Here’s how FEMA is facilitating accessible emergency management:

  • Preplanning for evacuations to include accessible transportation for people using wheelchairs and other mobility devices.
  • Equipping each Disaster Recovery Center with communication devices that allow people who are blind or have low vision and people who are deaf or hard of hearing or have other communication access needs to receive disaster information first hand.
  • Improving our disaster housing strategies and guidance so that people with disabilities have access to general shelters and temporary housing that meet their needs and helping to keep families together during an emergency.
  • Providing practical cot and sleeping arrangements for evacuees with disabilities; assisting them with personal care, hygiene, and specific dietary needs; and accommodating service animals alongside disaster survivors in the shelter.
  • Registering disaster survivors for federal assistance with mobile devices, enabling Disaster Survivor Assistance Team members to register survivors in the field.
  • Prior to a disaster, if there is enough warning, prepositioning disability integration advisors as part of the Incident Management Action Teams.

What I found particularly helpful was FEMA’s We Prepare Everyday video, which targets all communities and shows people with disabilities taking charge to prepare themselves and their families for emergencies. The video provides equal access and includes open captioning, a certified deaf interpreter, and audio description for viewers who are blind or have low vision.

Make a plan

How might a disaster affect you? Could you make it on your own for at least three days? After a disaster, you may not have access to a medical facility or even a drugstore, so it’s crucial to plan for the resources you use regularly and what you would do if those resources are limited or not available. Additional planning steps should include:

  • Create a support network. Keep a contact list in a watertight container in your emergency kit.
  • Be ready to explain to first responders that you need to evacuate and choose to go to a shelter with your family, service animal, caregiver, personal assistant, and your assistive technology devices and supplies.
  • Plan ahead for accessible transportation that you may need for evacuation or getting to a medical clinic. Work with local services, public transportation, or paratransit to identify your local or private accessible transportation options.
  • Inform your support network where you keep your emergency supplies; you may want to consider giving one member a key to your house or apartment.
  • Contact your city or county government’s emergency management agency or office. Many local offices keep lists of people with disabilities so they can be helped quickly in a sudden emergency.
  • If you are dependent on dialysis or other life-sustaining treatment, know the location and availability of more than one facility.
  • If you use medical equipment in your home that requires electricity, talk to your doctor or healthcare provider about how you can prepare for its use during a power outage.
  • Wear medical alert tags or bracelets.
  • If you have a communication disability, make sure your emergency information notes the best way to communicate with you.
  • If you use an augmentative communications device or other assistive technologies, plan how you will evacuate with the devices or how you will replace equipment if lost or destroyed. Keep model information and note where the equipment came from (Medicaid, Medicare, private insurance, etc.).
  • If you use assistive technology devices, such as white canes, CCTV, or text-to-speech software, keep information about model numbers and where you purchased the equipment, etc.
  • Plan how you will communicate with others if your equipment is not working, including laminated cards with phrases, pictures, or pictograms.
  • Keep Braille/text communication cards, if used, for two-way communication.
  • The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services online tool at helps people locate and access their electronic health records from a variety of sources.
  • Plan for children with disabilities and people who may have difficulty in unfamiliar or chaotic environments.

I think it is very wise to make a plan if you are a person with a disability.❦