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To Be Disabled During a Hurricane

By DEBORAH KENDRICK · September 21st, 2005 · In My View
While everyone was glued to Fox and CNN after Hurricane Katrina for more images of looters and stranded families on rooftops, I found I had trouble wrapping my mind around the concept of water higher than a house, water that was fouled with gasoline and human waste and, eventually, dead human beings.

Then I started hearing personal accounts from people with disabilities or their friends and family members. The mental picture became clearer, and I wonder if imagination is a blessing.

Imagine, for example, that you are Kimberly Cook, age 23. You've been living in a sort of nursing home, not because you're old but because your parents died a year ago and you need 24-hour personal care. The storm is coming, and everyone in your five-story building is evacuating.

The good news for Cook is that she called a caregiver who loved her and went to get her. The bad news is that the two of them embarked on a two-week "travel" adventure that included lifting Kimberly through a window, laying her on the floor of a boat, propping her against her caregiver's body for 10 hours on one bridge and five hours under another, not to mention a stint at the Superdome (where she was all but turned away) and other indignities until they finally were given shelter in the rectory of St. Gerard Majella church in Baton Rouge.

Or imagine that you are Allison Aguillard, visiting friends with your guide dog when the waters drive all 15 of you to the roof. A friend was able to go below and lift the exhausted guide dog from the water, where he was swimming frantically, and hoist him to a bunk bed, where he was later rescued.

These are scary tales, but tales with more or less happy endings. But there are thousands more, some known, many yet to be told. There were the 34 nursing home residents left to die by the facility's owners and patients in other hospitals and long-term care facilities unable to leave.

But I'm thinking about the living, the people with disabilities who have been displaced, many of whom are unable to speak for themselves.

I'm thinking about the people with communications disorders who can't explain who they are or what they need. I'm thinking about the people who desperately need their medications for some semblance of stability and the people who function just fine, independently, if their surrounding and routines are maintained with consistency -- but who, with lost companions, human or animal, and lost surroundings, are likely to unravel.

The U.S. Census reports about 29,000 people with physical and mental disabilities in the three Louisiana parishes most affected by the storm and its aftermath. Sure, sometimes you can recognize that a person has a disability immediately, but more often it's not clear. How much training do you think relief workers, paid and unpaid, have to communicate with someone who is deaf, explain next steps to someone with mental retardation or even figure out whether that guy who says, no, he doesn't take any anti-psychotic drugs any more can really be trusted?

Are deaf people finding TTYs in order to call loved ones and attempt to reconnect? Are pamphlets explaining how to get disability and medical benefits being put into simpler or pictorial language for people with cognitive disabilities?

Now that our president has promised to find or build housing, is someone making sure that 20 percent or so of those trailers will be accessible for people who have to get their wheelchairs through the door or up the stairs?

There are about a zillion more questions where these came from, but here's the bottom line: Seeing so much misery on national television made it woefully apparent that there are some who assign an unspoken rank to human lives -- some warranting rescue more than others. Everybody's talking about poverty and race; nobody's talking about disability, the trait that cuts across all boundaries and, when the ranking gets done, winds up on the bottom rung every time.

The thing is, I think most Americans want to do the right thing. That's why so many are doing so much to help. But you can't do the right thing if you don't know how.

The greatest barrier for Americans with disabilities for decades has been attitude: the lack of understanding by those who don't have disabilities of the sameness and, yes, sometimes "special needs" of those who do. If a more concerted effort were made at every level, from the military to the Red Cross to the Army Corps of Engineers, to incorporate information about people with disabilities into just plain ordinary time, dealing with life in the calm zones, then appropriate assistance in the face of emergency would be assured. If we adopt that attitude now, during the present need and beyond, we won't have to be ashamed of ourselves again.

As work proceeds to find housing, food, medical equipment and jobs for Katrina victims who have disabilities, I hope the work at every level includes tapping the resources of experts who know what's needed and how to go about getting it. You do need people who know what they're doing when people with autism or cerebral palsy or bipolar disorder or multiple sclerosis or any other of the myriad disabilities are involved.

Recognizing the need to use expertise now and to establish more training for the future could save both lives and quality of life -- and put us in a much smarter spot the next time there's any kind of catastrophe.



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