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Disaster Preparedness A Deaf Persons Perspective

  • Published: 2009-01-20 (Revised/Updated 2010-02-27) : Author: Robin Wenz
  • Synopsis: Consider emergency evacuation routes flashers for the deaf and ramps for people with special mobility needs in emergency situations.

Main Document

We need to consider emergency evacuation routes, flashers for the deaf, ramps for people with special mobility needs, special lighting for people with eyesight problems in emergency situations.

At 9:15 a.m. November 1, the facility manager of a Federal building in Washington DC received a bomb threat, the third within the past month.

The facility manager pulled the alarm and the employees in the building casually evacuated into the cold frosty morning air.

As usual, everyone stood away from the building and chatted amongst him or herself as they normally did during these common false alarm bomb threats. While one of the employees was chatting, he looked up at the second story-building window, and a young woman walked by with files in her hand. The man burst out laughing and pointed to the young woman. Others in the area looked up and cracked up laughing. Just then, the building exploded!

People threw themselves to the ground to avoid the burning, flying debris. People were screaming, and others were yelling there was someone up there pointing to the second level window. The supervisor of the young woman left in the burning building looked up in horror at the inferno, realizing that was his office area someone pointed to and he began scanning the chaos for all his employees. He counted all but one and began looking desperately for a young 22-year-old Deaf woman. They could not find her.

Meanwhile, another branch chief realized that he too was missing a Deaf woman on a lower level. In another area of the Federal building, standing away from the blaze, yet another supervisor discovered his 56-year-old paraplegic was missing. Three people with disabilities perished in the bombing. "Bomb threats" became common, people stopped taking them seriously, and the threat became a reality. What people thought was funny was not so funny.

While the above did not actually happen in entirety, the bomb threat, the evacuation, and persons with disabilities forgotten during the evacuation actually did occur. I was one of those forgotten that day. They have forgotten me many times.

Had the scenario been reality, the supervisors and occupants in this building would have had a major realty check. The government might have had a major lawsuit and they would have done serious damage to their reputation on how they treated people with disabilities. Families would have lost people they loved. The government is supposed to protect its people, yet, they let people with disabilities fall through the cracks.

I am Robin Wenz, and I am the woman who really did walk past the window, and looked down realizing something was not right when I saw people standing outside the building. Looking around the office, I realized everyone was gone, and honestly thought that maybe everyone went outside for some kind of party. As I left the office to "investigate" why no one bothered to tell me where they were going, a huge crowd of employees came plowing back into the building. I asked someone what that was all about and they said, "Oh, it's just the second bomb threat for this week. Nothing new!"

Horrified and angered that anyone could be so cruel to leave me behind, not once, but every time, I asked the supervisor why no one alerted me. He was apologetic and assigned someone to "alert" me. Yet again, we had another bomb threat, and that someone that management assigned to me was out that day. Once again, they forgot about me.

I cannot stress enough the importance of including people with disabilities into our emergency preparedness planning.

I thank God every day that those bomb threats were not real. We need to take into consideration emergency evacuation routes, flashers for the deaf, ramps for people with special mobility needs, special lighting for people with eyesight problems, and so forth.

In an actual attack on Washington DC, who will take care of the people with special needs? Who will evacuate them to a safe shelter, and who will provide for their needs when they arrive? Would the government and community leave the people to die like the thousands who perished during hurricane Katrina? Even today, people are saying there are still no solid plans for taking care of people with disabilities. Granted, there is a basic plan for people with disabilities whom voluntarily submit their names to the Disability coordinator in their town, but once they arrive at a shelter, what happens

Generally, evacuation officials advise occupants to leave the building, perhaps announcing instructions over a bullhorn; instructions that Deaf people will never hear. Upon arrival at a shelter, people with disabilities are in for a rude awakening. Typically, there are no special facilities, no special dieting foods for diabetics, and other people with special diet needs. Often, you won't find special ostomy appliances, wound dressings, psychiatric medications, insulin, pregnancy products, hearing aid batteries or flashing warning systems, and the list of daily and necessary needs go on unfilled, sometimes for days or sometimes they just don't have provisions for people with special needs at all.

My story is having a happy conclusion.

I caught the attention of a Healthcare Disaster Preparedness company executive who recognized my experience in advocating for persons with disabilities and my personal desire to make a difference. He was impressed with my educational background and my many years of experience serving on various Governors' commissions including a Governor's Commission board member for people with disabilities, offered to mentor me in a training program leading to my becoming his company's "Program Manager for People with Special Needs." In that capacity I will help Public Health Departments and Healthcare Organizations select, staff, supply, and equip Special Needs Shelters. I will also train and mentor others with disabilities to prepare cities, counties, hospitals, and so forth meet the Special Needs of the communities they serve. I have the good fortune of meeting a "Pay it forward" type of person.


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