Panel 15 – Accessibility in emergency preparedness

Conveners: Dawid Wladyka and Katarzyna Sepielak (The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley)

Abstract: World Health Organization estimates over 1 billion people living with some form of disability worldwide. They account for 15% of global population, including up to 4% of the 15 and older people living with significant difficulties in functioning. Moreover, due to the expanding life expectancy and aging, the disability rates are continuously increasing. At the same time, people with a disability are among the groups most vulnerable to disasters including increased risk of loss of life, insufficient care, and more challenging recovery. On the other hand, the onset of disasters is one of the drivers for further increasing disability rates in the hazard vulnerable areas. These vulnerabilities are especially relevant when coexisting with other socio-economic disadvantages including poverty, migratory status or language proficiency. In the areas with significant presence of foreign populations, the presence of communities that struggle with dominant language proficiency is not uncommon. Both disabilities and linguistic barriers could result with unfamiliarity with evacuation procedures, cause the warnings to go unnoticed, the risks to be assessed inadequately, and hinder recovery from emergencies. Moreover, this increased vulnerability does not stop at the disadvantaged groups but has a potential to expose larger community at risk. For example, the caregivers are exposed to higher rates of poverty due to increased caring after the disaster.

This panel discusses disabilities together with other coexisting disaster vulnerabilities in hazard prone areas. It aims to explore many interlaced issues like accessible local emergency preparedness materials published on websites of local authorities, discrepancies and unequal dissemination of information across the regions, including overall access to emergency preparedness information, language translations, source of content, types of media used and their accessibility to vulnerable groups. The discussion will also focus on the problem of awareness of the local stakeholders regarding the linguistic needs of the population, as well as their perspectives on the engagement of vulnerable groups through collaborative partnerships during planning in non-emergency times, including the implementation of translation and interpreting, and the problem of the effectiveness of functional need support services in the emergency shelters.

Long abstract: World Health Organization estimates over 1 billion people living with some form of disability worldwide. They account for 15% of global population, including up to 4% of the 15 and older people living with significant difficulties in functioning. Moreover, due to the expanding life expectancy and aging, the disability rates are continuously increasing. At the same time, people with a disability are among the groups most vulnerable to disasters. Studies provide evidence indicating the increased risk of loss of life, insufficient care, and more challenging recovery. On the other hand, the onset of disasters is one of the drivers for further increasing physical disability rates in the hazard vulnerable areas. These vulnerabilities are especially relevant when coexisting with other socio-economic disadvantages including poverty, migratory status or language proficiency. In the areas with significant presence of foreign populations, the presence of communities that struggle with dominant language proficiency is not uncommon. For example, both disabilities and linguistic barriers could result with unfamiliarity with evacuation procedures, cause the warnings to go unnoticed, the risks to be assessed inadequately, and hinder recovery from emergencies. Moreover, this increased vulnerability does not stop at the disadvantaged groups themselves but has a potential to expose larger community at risk. For example, the caregivers are exposed to higher rates of poverty due to increased caring after the disaster.

While there are still many uncertainties regarding the accessibility issues during a developing disaster event, some policies already enforce or recommend development of accessible emergency preparedness. For example, insufficient resources and services to accommodate most people with a disability in appropriate shelters prompted Federal Emergency Management Agency in the United States to publish guidelines aimed at integrating people with disabilities into general population shelters, and Functional Need Support Services toolkits were introduced as a guideline to existing and new shelters. Nonetheless, research indicates obstacles in adopting those regulations, including overwhelmed emergency managers and lack of expertise. On the other hand, one needs to remember that information is a pillar of disaster resiliency and plays a major role in all phases of emergency management. In the United States, some policies already enforce accessible emergency preparedness information. Federal entities mandate that vulnerable populations must have access to and cannot be excluded from emergency plans and programs. However, those policies are not necessarily comprehensive. Only some broadcasting modes are mandated to be accessible locally, while regulations on websites apply exclusively at the federal level. This approach is far from empowering emergency management best practices at the local level. It negatively affects diversification of information sources and “universalization” of accessibility, i.e. reaching various vulnerable groups with use of a common modality, like captions that can be used by various groups, including hard of hearing and foreign immigrants.

This panel discusses disabilities together with other coexisting disaster vulnerabilities in hazard prone areas. It aims to explore many interlaced issues like accessible local emergency preparedness materials published on websites of local authorities, discrepancies and unequal dissemination of information across the regions, including overall access to emergency preparedness information, language translations, source of content, types of media used and their accessibility to vulnerable groups. The discussion will also focus on the problem of awareness of the local stakeholders regarding the linguistic needs of the population, as well as their perspectives on the engagement of vulnerable groups through collaborative partnerships during planning in non-emergency times, including the implementation of translation and interpreting, and the problem of the effectiveness of functional need support services in the emergency shelters.