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Planning for Emergencies With a Disability or Medical Condition

Mollie Tinnin
Emergency and disaster preparedness for people with disabilities.

When I was a kid, my friends and I would play a game where we had to go around the group and say the one item we would take with us if we were stranded on a deserted island. It was always great fun, and there were a lot a laughs when one of us had the foresight to bring an inflatable raft and the rest of the creative items we opted to bring (Chapstick, a lifetime supply of our favorite food, a television etc.) became irrelevant.

As an adult, I play this game with my husband and family, but it’s called being disaster ready and it includes a bonus round where we get to figure out how to overcome a disaster without running out of durable medical equipment and medications.

The reality is that a disaster can happen at any time and in some instances, such as a house fire, there may be no warning and ultimately no time to prepare in the moment. As a safety professional, I spend my life training others to plan for worst case scenarios with the goal of being to be able to return to normalcy as quickly as possible after an undesired event. In my personal life, that translates to planning for the different types of disasters that might affect me, my community and what the short term and long-term impact might be. While this may seem like a challenging task for anyone, add in having to factor in a disability or chronic illness and it can be incredibly daunting.

Related:How to Apply for Disability Accommodations for Common Standardized Tests

The challenges those with disabilities and chronic illnesses might face during a disaster require more detailed and thorough planning. Some things that should be taken into consideration when putting together your family’s disaster plan include:

  • Disrupted communications which can make it difficult to find access to healthcare or contact the pharmacy to replace medications that may have been lost in the initial impact of the disaster, or medications that might need to be refilled during disasters with a more long-term disruption to normal life.
  • Road or bridge closures which might also make access to healthcare challenging or impossible.
  • Loss of utilities which can potentially make the use of medical devices such as ventilators or CPAP impossible to use.
  • Facility closures and an overwhelmed emergency services system which has the potential to make access to healthcare difficult or impossible.
  • Separation of family, which can have added potential for challenges when a family member serves as a caretaker.

Related:What to Do If Disability Accommodations Are Not Being Met in College

It is important to create a family disaster plan that addresses all of these. The plan should be in writing and should be reviewed on a regular basis with everyone in the family, as well as an out-of the-area contact to keep it fresh in their mind and to identify any changes that need to be made. A copy of the plan should also be kept in a disaster kit that is easy to locate and grab quickly in the event the plan needs to be put into action.

Ideally, a family should keep a disaster kit in their home and in each of their vehicles. If you have enough notice to be able to grab all the disaster kits before disaster strikes, even better. Your family’s disaster plan and kit should include the following:

  • Identify two meeting locations for family members to reconnect. One meeting place should be located near the home in the event of a house fire or other event that causes loss of property. The other meeting location should be outside the immediate neighborhood in the event of a larger disaster. The plan should also identify two ways out of the neighborhood in the event one route is compromised.
  • Include your pets in the plan. If your family includes a service dog, ensure all the dog’s paperwork is up-to-date and keep copies in your disaster kits, as well as the contact number for your veterinarian in the event duplicate copies of records are needed.
  • Know the plans of schools and workplaces where your family member might be in the event of a disaster. They have their own evacuation points, and it may be necessary to locate them or get medications and other medical equipment to them.
  • Identify all necessary contacts such as doctors, pharmacies, family members, veterinarians, medical supply companies etc. If you use a medical supply company, make sure to include your account number. Print out or write down these numbers in case you cannot access your cell phone or a computer.
  • Kits should include water. The American Red Cross recommends at least a gallon of water per day, however, certain medical conditions and treatments require the use of significantly more water, so take your family’s needs into account.
  • At least three days’ worth of food should be stored in the kits. Food items to be included should not need to be cooked and should routinely be checked to ensure they aren’t expired. Consider any food allergies or restrictions and include plenty of items to accommodate them. I personally recommend at least five days’ worth of food items for those with restrictions or allergies. I also recommend including electrolyte mix such as Drip Drop as well as meal replacement shakes. Many symptoms are exacerbated in stressful situations, so plan for the worst.
  • Include any over-the-counter medications used to manage symptom flare-ups as well as heat pads or anything else that might be used to cope with chronic conditions or disabilities.
  • Have a minimum of seven days’ worth of prescription medications and medical equipment. In the event of facilities being shut down and an overwhelmed health care situation, it might take longer than usual to fill prescriptions or replace supplies. American Red Cross shelters are staffed with volunteers who have resources to assist victims of disasters with replacing any lost or destroyed prescriptions and medical equipment. Basic first aid supplies should also be included as well as travel size toiletries, toilet paper and sanitary items. Be sure to include a list of medications as well as dosages in the kit.
  • Keep flashlights and extra phone chargers in the disaster kits. Storing batteries outside the flashlight will help them last longer.
  • Clothing to include closed toes shoes, leather gloves and an array of items to accommodate all weather conditions and temperatures should be included.
  • A reasonable amount of small bills and coins, as ATMs and cash registers may not be in working order.
  • Keep copies of all important documents that might not be easily replaced such as a birth certificate or social security card. Documents may be kept on a flash drive as well. Keep a document with important phone numbers and addresses, as without power it may not be possible to use electronic mobile devices.

Related:Applying for Disability Accommodations at College and University

While it might not be possible to accurately predict every emergency, creating your customized family disaster plan and kit can help you feel confident that you will have what you need, without the added stress of managing your medical condition.

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