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Disasters vs. disabilities – plan ahead!

Preparing for emergencies as people with disabilities

Preparing for emergencies as people with disabilities

How ready are you when disaster strikes? If you are Swiss, you should be familiar with the list of emergency supplies recommended by The Federal Office for National Economic Supply. Nine liters of drinking water per person, food for a week: not many take this list seriously, especially the younger generation who has never or rarely experienced disasters.

Since the COVID-19 outbreak and lockdown, people start to give emergency preparedness more thought. It is certainly more than stocking up on essential items like toilet paper. Emergency preparedness means getting ready to respond and stay safe when disaster happens.

People with disabilities: the vulnerable population

Getting ready: people with disabilities know so well how much that means, especially those with mobility difficulties. Although infrastructure becomes ever more accessible, places still remain inaccessible at large for people with mobility difficulties. In normal times, being prepared means fewer detours and frustration. But when disaster strikes, being prepared can be a matter of life and death, even in developed countries like Switzerland.

A global survey by the UN highlights some reasons why people with disabilities are more vulnerable than others in general population during and after a disaster. Only 20% of respondents with disabilities think they can evacuate immediately without difficulty if a sudden disaster strikes. 71% of respondents have no individual preparedness plan for natural disasters, and only 17% are aware of their community’s disaster preparedness plan. These numbers are especially worrying because, according to a UN report, people with disabilities are two to four times more likely to die in a disaster than those without disabilities.

überschwemmte unterführung in der schweiz

The extreme weather in Switzerland caught people off guard this summer. How much more difficult is it to evacuate from situations like this for people with disabilities? (Source:

According to the Swiss Hydro-CH2018 research project, climate change will continue to greatly affect Switzerland with more extreme weather, resulting in natural disasters like flooding and hailstorms we experienced repeatedly this summer. What can you do if you want to get ready for the next natural disasters and other emergencies?

Making connections and backup plans

“Where do I go?” “Who can help me?” “How do I contact my relatives and friends?” These simple questions can get you into a panic when you face an emergency unprepared. Therefore, it is essential to plan ahead and make yourself a personal plan to help you react promptly and appropriately during emergency.

For example, the Swiss Federal Office for Civil Protection runs a website and an app called Alertswiss, where you can stay informed about any disasters and emergencies in the area you live. Alertswiss also offers guidance for your personal emergency plan such as a record of relatives’ contact information, emergency kit checklist, evacuation plans, and emergency meeting points when place of residence can no longer be reached.

It is not only crucial to know where to seek help but also have a few alternative plans in case a plan fails. In the webinar for disaster readiness and paralysis below, it recommends people with paralysis to have a team of four or more people who can help out during emergencies. The team should include neighbors, family, friends and caregivers. There should be someone who can check on you, understand and agree to go where you are to assist, in case you need help when you are stuck or injured.

Packing your emergency kits

Emergency can happen anytime, anywhere. It is best to have your emergency kits prepared for different places and situations. The ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) National Network has created a table which summarizes the supplies needed for five different emergency kits:

  • A carry-on-you kit should contain essential items you need at all times.
  • A grab-and-go kit should be light and easy to grab in case you need to leave with it in hurry without any help.
  • A home kit is vital for your daily living with items such as water, food, disability-specific items so that you can be self-sufficient for days at home or evacuation shelter.
  • A bedside kit should contain items you may need if you are trapped.
  • A car kit should have items when you need to evacuate.


What else should people with disabilities pack in their emergency kits? (Source: Agroscope)

You should prepare your kits based on your abilities, different situations and needs. You should also store kits in a waterproof container in a safe and easy-to-reach place. For wheelchair users, the ADA National Network and the American Red Cross have highlighted a few more points for emergency preparedness:

  • Prepare a patch kit or can of sealant to repair flat tires and/or extra inner tubes for non-puncture-proof wheelchair tires.
  • Label equipment with laminated simple operation instructions, for example, how to “free wheel” or “disengage the gears” of your power wheelchair.
  • Keep in your emergency kit recharging devices that can be connected to a vehicle to charge a battery.
  • Purchase an extra battery for a power wheelchair and other battery-operated medical or assistive technology devices and keep it charged at all times.
  • Keep a lightweight manual wheelchair for backup if possible.
  • Store back-up mobility or medical equipment at your neighbor’s home, school, or your workplace.

No one should be left behind

You might remember Hurricane Katrina which struck the southeastern United States and caused over 1800 deaths in August 2005. One of the victims was Benilda Caixeta, an electric wheelchair user with muscular dystrophy. In the documentary below, Benilda’s friend shares her tragedy. First, Benilda was abandoned by the driver who was supposed to evacuate her to a hotel. Police then offered to help but they refused to take her wheelchair or physical assistant. In the end, Benilda stayed behind and didn’t survive the drown.

Tragedies like Benilda’s would not have happened if there were enough support for people with disabilities – the 15% of global population. Disaster risk management would only work for everyone when we involve people with disabilities in the general emergency planning for the public – listen to their needs and address them!

How emergency prepared are you? What tactics do you have for emergency? What must-have would you pack for your emergency kit?

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