Emergency Preparedness
How can we prepare better for people with disabilities in an emergency?
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Emergency Preparedness
How can we prepare better for people with disabilities in an emergency?
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Spinal Cord Injuries Australia

Have you thought about your own preparations in an emergency? In fact, what do you consider an emergency?

These questions and more were asked at the first National Forum on Disability Inclusive Disaster Risk Reduction, held at the University of Sydney on June 2, 2023.

Led by Associate Professor Michelle Villeneuve from the Centre of Disability Research and Policy at The University of Sydney, the event brought together people with disabilities, emergency services, and members of government to discuss the very real responsibility of making sure people with disabilities are supported in the event of a crisis.

One of the first things you will hear come from Michelle is the importance of Person-Centred Emergency Preparedness (P-CEP), a toolkit codesigned by people with disabilities. It enables people to self-assess their preparedness, capabilities and support needs and develop a personal emergency plan.

A concept that is relatively new and something that, as a person with a disability myself, didn’t really consider. But makes sense. If there is an emergency, no matter what it is, and emergency services don’t know I exist then shouldn’t I let them know as part of my P-CEP?

In the room, each table had been deliberately selected so that there was an equal mix of people with diverse disabilities, community disability organisations and emergency services. It meant that when it came time to brainstorm and discuss ideas on how to best approach to successfully implement disability training across multiple facets of emergency services and how best to work together so everyone is made aware of P-CEP, the roundtable discussions felt equal.

Peter Tully from the Queenslanders with Disability Network, who helped co-design the P-CEP gave some very real facts.

  • People with disabilities are two to four times more likely to die in a disaster, than the general population.
  • People with disabilities take longer to recover from the aftermath.

He noted that a shared responsibility of preparation supported by emergency management and government representatives is key.

Member for Gosford, Liesl Tesch MP, shared her own experiences and emphasised that disability isn’t a one-size-fits-all, even when it comes to emergency preparation. She gave examples of how she can walk to a degree, but in the event of an emergency her wheelchair is a must.

When people think about a crisis, reading the words “disaster risk reduction” usually conjures up the thought of flood, fire or a tsunami.

However, when there was an opportunity to give some comments before we started the day, I couldn’t help but say something about my own experiences. I grew up in the very fire-prone Blue Mountains in New South Wales.

Something that I hadn’t considered was what a disaster risk is in a metropolitan area. It wasn’t until five years ago when I moved to the sixth floor of an apartment block in Greater Sydney that it suddenly dawned on me.

What do I do if my building was on fire? I can’t run down the fire stairs. What do I do?

The speakers and panellists were as diverse, as the people attending. Meaningful codesign and subsequent implementation was a running theme, and I felt like people were enthusiastic about wanting to make a change to the way people with disabilities are supported.

Member for Gosford, Liesl Tesch, who has a disability herself, talked about meaningful inclusion in the government’s agenda, people with disabilities need to be part of inclusive design, learn abotu risk safety instead of “being passive recipients of the services around us”.

“Our risk is amplified in a way they’ll never comprehend until the risk compromises us”

A panel presentation titles ‘Disability Leadership Through Co-design’ talked about the very obvious bonus where codesign saves resources, time and most of all money. 

When discussing disability inclusion in rural and regional communities, Leyla Craig from Fire and Rescue NSW said that building trust is a two step process, “Trust isn’t an overnight or quick fix, it’s ongoing”

“People with disabilities have one-off engagements and it’s not enough to gain trust.”

Luke Barbagallo on behalf of the City of Coffs Harbour, says that there needs to be certainly beyond election promises and says PCEP should be part of every LGA Disability Inclusion Action Plan (DIAP).

There is actually too many things to write about because the day was incredibly jam packed with information, collaboration and making sure everyone was equally heard.

The whole day made me reflect on the enormity of disability. It can’t be emphasised enough that a complete disregard of preparedness in the event of any small or large-scale disaster potentially affects five million Australians nationwide. Surely that’s a big enough reason to start a national change.

Written by Susan Wood.

Susan hosts SCIA’s podcast Have The Nerve. You can listen to Michelle Villeneuve on Episode 26: Emergency Preparedness and Planning for People with Disabilities.