Disability and Disaster Management

February 13, 2024

In an emergency, no one should ever be left behind. Emergency response plans must be inclusive and provide strategies for supporting every individual in your community—including those with disabilities.

When it comes to disability and disaster management, most of the available educational resources (such as guides and pamphlets) put the responsibility on individuals to ensure their own safety during a disaster. However, individuals with disabilities face greater barriers and are often disproportionately affected by disasters. Community leaders and emergency managers must step up and provide more comprehensive care for those with disabilities.

March of Dimes Canada has identified significant gaps in emergency preparedness and response planning that address the unique needs of people living with disabilities. The organization recommends that emergency management teams:

  • Identify effective means of communicating real-time emergency information in accessible formats
  • Involve people with disabilities in the development of pre- and post-disaster planning
  • Establish transportation options for people with disabilities before, during, and after a natural disaster
  • Train first responders to support individuals with disabilities
  • Understand and address the needs of those with multiple disabilities

In this article, we’ll discuss three strategies teams should incorporate into their disaster planning process to ensure inclusivity and increase equity in emergency management.

Disability and Disaster Management: Three Strategies for Accessibility

1. Develop Partnerships with Social Services, Care Homes, and Disability Advocacy Organizations

Establishing a network of support and responsibility amongst organizations, businesses, essential services, government agencies, and non-profits in and around your community is one of the key components of disaster recovery. This network should include collaboration with local organizations that work directly with individuals with disabilities and vulnerable populations, such as social services, care facilities, and disability organizations or non-profits.

These organizations can work at the intersection of disability and disaster management. They often have strategies to identify and reach individuals in the community who need support and can provide accessible services. They can also provide details about what barriers currently exist and recommend how best to serve the disability community in different disaster response scenarios.

Organizations that support vulnerable individuals and those with disabilities should be empowered to provide education and resources on emergency preparedness. For instance, care facilities (and organizations that provide at-home care) should have established emergency preparedness and response plans that connect to community-wide plans.

Additionally, with proactive planning, emergency management teams may be able to delegate aspects of recovery work to these organizations to ensure continuity of care in the event of a disaster.

Emergency management teams should also work to increase their awareness of systemic disability issues and work to address them in their plans. National disability advocacy organizations, such as March of Dimes Canada, DAWN Canada, and the Council of Canadians with Disabilities, have an ear to the ground when it comes to the state of disability inclusion across the country. These organizations can equip emergency management teams with training resources and tools to develop human-centric, disability-aware emergency mitigation, response, and recovery plans.

2. Engage with People with Disabilities in Your Community

Effective emergency response plans must include community engagement. Emergency management teams should have conversations with members of the disability community to uncover current gaps and determine accessibility needs in the event of a disaster. The information that individuals share gives teams the qualitative data they need to set priorities and build budgets that address the challenges of these community members.

Community cohesion and psychological well-being are essential components of disaster recovery. Establishing a relationship with individuals in the disability community can also help strengthen a sense of trust. When emergency management teams demonstrate that they have the best interests of vulnerable individuals in mind, these individuals are more likely to feel comfortable collaborating with first responders and leaders during an emergency.

When conducting community engagement, ensure that both virtual and in-person meetings are accessible for those participating. The Government of Canada’s Guide to Planning Inclusive Meetings outlines ways to make community engagement meetings accessible for everyone. Be sure to consult the full guide for details on setting up inclusive meetings. Just a few recommendations include:

  • Selecting accessible facilities for in-person meetings
  • Providing meeting materials ahead of time and offering materials in alternative formats such as Braille, DAISY, audio, large print, and plain language
  • Giving participants enough time to arrange transportation or providing transportation
  • Ensuring that the agenda includes breaks at regular intervals
  • Providing sign language interpreters, real-time captioning, or amplification systems for those who are deaf, deafened, or hard of hearing

Including the voices and perspectives of those with disabilities bridges the gap between the experience of disability and disaster management strategies. Prioritizing accessibility in meetings means that you’ll be able to gather the insights you need to create emergency preparedness plans that support those with disabilities. 

3. Establish or Advocate for Disability-Aware First Responder Training

First responders are responsible for addressing the realities of disability and disaster management under pressure. Emergency management teams at the municipal, provincial, and federal levels need to prioritize the delivery of disability awareness training for first responders in compliance with the Accessible Canada Act. March of Dimes Canada has made recommendations to the federal and provincial governments to improve training for first responders to ensure that people with disabilities have equitable access to services in the event of a disaster.

Training helps first responders handle a variety of disaster response scenarios involving people with disabilities. This establishes trust and a sense of safety that gives individuals a strong start on the road to recovery.

Not all emergency management teams have the resources to provide structured training programs. However, leaders can work to increase disability awareness and inclusivity within their communities through community engagement and accessibility initiatives. Connecting first response teams to the disability community could be a powerful first step towards bridging the gaps in disaster response and recovery for people with disabilities.

Get Support Creating an Inclusive Emergency Preparedness Plan

Emergency response plans must include coordinated efforts across different departments and organizations, but it can be a challenge to bring all the moving parts together under a unified plan. The team at Rebecca Innes Consulting (RIC) specializes in community engagement and establishing networks of support. We work with communities of all sizes to create disaster mitigation, response, and recovery planning tailored to their unique needs. Get ready and stay ready for emergencies in your community with help from RIC.

Book a consultation

Additional Sources

“Creating an Accessible Emergency Response Plan: Guidelines for Federally Regulated Organizations.” Accessibility Standards Canada, 8 June 2023. www.accessible.canada.ca/resources/creating-accessible-emergency-response-plan-guidelines.

Nick, Gilbert A et al. “Emergency preparedness for vulnerable populations: people with special health-care needs.” Public health reports (Washington, D.C. : 1974) vol. 124,2 (2009): 338-43. doi:10.1177/003335490912400225

Helping you prepare for and recover from disasters through strategy, project planning, and grant writing services. Based in Alberta, Canada

RIC is fortunate and grateful to live vibrantly on the land of the Treaty 7 People – the Blackfoot Confederacy (Siksika, Kainai, Piikani), the Tsuut’ina, the Îyâxe Nakoda Nations (Chiniki, Bearspaw, Wesley), and the Métis Nation (Region 3). In the spirit of change, RIC is committed to seeking truth and reconciliation.

© Rebecca Innes Consulting 2023