One of the unfortunate things about the cultural phenomenon of disability is that we rarely make contingency plans for PWDs, and even more rarely do we make effective ones. Even if there is a contingency plan for PWDs, it’s not uncommon for us to be left in the dark about what they are!
This particular post is partly inspired by the disaster in Haiti, partly by the massive snowfall in the mid-Atlantic, and partly by my experiences with fire alarms.
So, Haiti. We have a country where a large amount of the major infrastructure has been destroyed. The roads, government programs, buildings, hospitals – a great amount of the services people rely on are in ruins. This becomes particularly problematic when you are disabled. To get food or safe water, you must wait in long lines – something that a person with a disability like mine would be unable to do. Much of the shelter that is available is not accessible, as Haiti does not have a law comperable to the ADA that would require at least some degree of accessibility. (I’m not going to go into how limited that requirement is, or how often it’s flouted here. We at least theoretically have standards that increase accessibility – Haiti does not) Medication and medical care are scarce, including supplies like catheters and osteomy bags, which are necessary for some PWDs.
This is all compounded by the fact that most of the operatives for NGOs are able-bodied people. Their first priority is to serve the masses as much as possible, and because people with disabilities might need more assistance, they get de-prioritized. We also need different services sometimes, and the NGOs are trying to provide the basics that everyone needs rather than the specific treatment needed by comparatively few. Finally, when planning these big operations, most NGOs do not give much consideration to needs of PWDs – they are mostly AB and thus have the luxury of not considering what a PWD needs day to day. Because of this, their plans do not include making the necessary arrangements for PWDs. In short, we are forgotten people.
Let’s talk about these big snowstorms recently affecting the mid-Atlantic region of the US. These were relatively severe for that region, in terms of deposit – 20+ inches each storm. Worse yet, two of these storms were within a week of each other, and there was not enough warming in between for the snow to fully melt – just enough to form a layer of ice under the snow.
So, you have deposits of up to 55 inches in the space of 1 week. The major streets get plowed and salted, and in some areas even the sidewalks get salted. But only in some areas, generally the most expensive parts of town. The smaller streets do not get plowed or salted at all, and this results in a problem.
With drifts up to mid-thigh on a man, the streets are massively unaccessible. I’m a relatively ambulatory PWD – I walk with the assistance of my service dog – and even I can’t go more than a few feet. We sink into the snow, skid, get soaked, and get exhausted. The car is buried, and worse than that, in many areas once you park, you can’t get back on to the road. Why? Well, the road hasn’t been plowed or salted, just packed down by people driving over it, so there is a 4″ pack of ice sitting on the road. The last time we got stuck in one of those spots, it took the boyfriend and 5 men, 2 snow shovels, 1 heavy metal shovel, a cardboard box, plus 2 cups of road salt the coffee shop gave me, to get us back onto the road. People aren’t just getting stuck in their parking spaces, they get stuck on the road as well, completely blocking our little one way streets. They also slide around on this unpredictable, unsafe surface, resulting in accidents and very close calls.
And thus, I am only able to get out of the house because of my boyfriend and the car. He drops me at the front door of where ever I am going, because I can’t walk far in this mess. He digs the car out. He’s shoveled more snow in the past week than in the two years before that. If we didn’t have a car, I’d be completely housebound because our sidewalks are still over a foot deep in snow and slick with ice. Most people walk on the roadway, which is treacherous ice, because the snow drifts haven’t been packed down in many places. If I was in a wheelchair, I’d be out of luck. Why? Because the cities don’t salt or plow residential areas when the snow hits. Even a small amount of snow makes accessibility questionable. And even in areas where they do salt or plow the streets, they almost never plow or salt the sidewalks, leaving a person with the options of attempting to slog through the snow (and the plow leavings, where they cross streets) or slip and slide along the road and hope they don’t get hit.
When it comes to snow and other weather disasters, the city doesn’t think about us. We get forgotten again.
And then there are fire evacuations. In fires, you aren’t supposed to use the elevators. People who are AB or ambulatory get sent down the stairs. And the rest of us? We get told to wait in a ‘fire isolation’ stair if one exists, with a promise that someone will inform the firefighters that we are up there. What if the fire moves too fast? What if no one remembers to tell the firefighters to come get us?
When buildings are built, our ability to evacuate isn’t considered. We are supposed to be content with a plan that relies on A) a person remembering we are in the building B) telling someone who can help us and C) that person being able to help us. We have no ability to help ourselves, take initiative, even direct matters to go in the way we desire. No autonomy.
Oh yes, we are forgotten people. When disasters strike, there is often very little planning for our safety. Subways have escape routes, but they rarely have escape plans for PWDs outside of ‘someone could carry them’. No plans that respect our dignity and autonomy. Tall buildings have much the same problem. Emergency evacuations because of natural disasters face, again, the same problem.
The worst part is that we are rarely informed about what we are supposed to do in an emergency. I had to ask the administration at my school to find out where I was supposed to go in a fire, since I can’t manage multiple flights of stairs. If our house were to burn down, it’s hard to find out which shelters would be accessible to me. In emergency evacutations, the place for PWDs to be picked up are often different…and announced at a fraction of the frequency that other evacuation sites are mentioned. Even if there are plans in place, people forget to inform us.
If you are part of an organization, see if you have a plan for the evacuation of people with disabilities. If you do, does it respect their autonomy or does it make them rely on someone rescuing them? Is it well publicized? Do you post notices or send out memos to make sure that everyone – both people with disabilities and ablebodied people – know what the plan is?
If you didn’t like your answers to any of those, talk to your administration and management and see if you can change them. Don’t forget us.