When natural disasters strike, their impact on people with disability is even more diabolical. So what measures are being put in place to assist those affected? By Sophia Auld.

Disability and natural disasters

Kylie Hibberd was able to  learn a lot from the Cyclone Yasi emergency.
Kylie Hibberd was able to learn a lot from the Cyclone Yasi emergency.
Credit: Shane Andersen

Cyclone Yasi was tough for everyone, but for Kylie Hibberd – who is deaf and blind – the Category 5 monster brought greater challenges when it crossed the Queensland coast in February 2011. Fortunately, Hibberd was well prepared. “We had been keeping up to date with the weather warnings,” says the 44-year-old wildlife carer, who moved in with family for the cyclone’s duration.

While Hibberd suffered no major ill effects, many people with disability don’t fare well in natural disasters. According to the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, evidence suggests people with disability are two to four times more likely to die or be injured during natural disasters than the general population.

In 2015, the UN finalised the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction – the first to recognise the needs of people with disability. Along with the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, it outlines expectations about the inclusion of the rights of people with disability in risk and emergency situations.

Almost one in five Australians has some form of disability, and 35.9 per cent of Australian households include a person with disability, according to figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Despite this, Australia has no national strategy for disability-inclusive disaster risk reduction (DIDRR). Disability advocates are calling for the development of a policy, emphasising the inclusion of people with disability in its planning.

People with disability experience heightened vulnerability during natural disasters, explains Andree Malpass, an occupational therapist and postgraduate research student at James Cook University (JCU). She has been exploring how people with disability shelter during cyclones. Her findings are showing how important the physical environment and access to support networks are for people with disability.

She describes one Queensland family in Tully, including three people with disability, who sheltered at home during a cyclone and were without support for weeks. “The mother of those three individuals … was providing 24-hour care during that time,” she says. “It put a huge demand on her … and that obviously impacted her psychologically.”

Malpass says many people with disability choose to shelter at home. “People have had some pretty horrendous experiences in cyclone shelters because they aren’t catering to the needs of people with disabilities,” she says. The current guidelines for public shelters, for example, allow one square metre per person, which is “very insufficient” for someone who requires assistive equipment such as a wheelchair.

She adds that the seating is often inappropriate, especially for the elderly or people with pressure considerations. Even if mattresses are provided, she says, “a person with reduced mobility can’t get on and off the floor, so people can be sitting in one position on a plastic chair for 18 hours or more”. Another issue is toileting, with access to suitable facilities often being absent or minimal.

Furthermore, the public sheltering guidelines stipulate that if you need assistance, you must bring it with you. “The likelihood is, in the event of a cyclone, your carers and support workers aren’t going to be there,” says Malpass.

“If you’ve got an unsafe home, then a shelter is where your safety needs are going to be met,” she says. “But if that isn’t supported because of your care needs, you’re stuck in a difficult position of choosing between safety or your quality of care. It’s not a position people should be put in.”

Hibberd learnt a lot from her experience with Yasi. “[I] am a lot smarter now, particularly as I rely on tank water and, with no power, I lose water supply,” she says. She has made changes to be better prepared for emergency situations, such as having solar chargers for her phone and computer and a power supply to the shed, which also doubles as an emergency shelter.

A 2014 report by the University of Sydney and German aid agency Arbeiter-Samariter-Bund (ASB) found 63 per cent of people with disability need assistance evacuating in emergencies. And going to a public shelter doesn’t guarantee safety either. Jenny Quaill, a physiotherapist and postgraduate researcher at JCU, has been studying the experiences of people with disability before, during and after cyclones. She interviewed one woman who is blind and went to a Cairns shelter about 10 years ago. During the height of the cyclone, she was forced to leave the building to toilet her guide dog. “That was her first experience of an evacuation shelter and … she’s never been back since,” Quaill says.

For those choosing to shelter at home, there can be other issues, such as not having the physical ability to “batten down the hatches”, get to the shops for supplies or access important cyclone information. People who are blind, for example, can’t view cyclone tracking maps, Quaill notes.

Hibberd adds that “subtitles, descriptive audio and basic sign language are sadly lacking on a number of channels”.

During a cyclone, loss of power and water can become a serious problem. Quaill describes one man with a spinal cord injury who couldn’t move and developed a stage-four pressure injury – where the tissues erode down to muscle and bone. Loss of power meant his pressure-relieving mattress didn’t work, and carers couldn’t reach him. He later required surgery and spent many months in hospital.

Loss of power can also mean people can’t refrigerate vital medication or communicate with loved ones or emergency services by phone.

The aftermath of a cyclone brings fresh challenges, such as financial stress. Quaill says many people she spoke to couldn’t afford contents insurance and had no means to replace damaged property.

One man with a well-controlled mental health condition had his disability pension payment delayed and had no cash. “You’ve got to have cash in the aftermath because all the EFTPOS systems and ATMs are down,” Quaill says. Unable to buy food or water, he ended up begging on the streets of his home town. “All of that stress triggered a really significant mental health event.”

Quaill notes that some of these problems have simple solutions, such as a generator loan scheme for people who lose power. Other issues are more complex, such as making evacuation centres disability-inclusive. What they have in common is the need for a national policy developed in consultation with people with disability.

When she completed a literature review prior to her research, Quaill found no one had explored the lived experience of people with disability in natural disasters in Australia. Nor did she find any evidence that people with disability were being recruited to formulate disability-inclusive disaster policies.

She believes policy must change at a national level first, which will trickle down to state and local governments. “If you have disability-inclusive policy at all levels of government, then you can deliver a co-ordinated approach to implementation of disability-inclusion strategies.”

Many organisations have a role in DIDRR, she says, including disability support groups, care providers, regional councils and state emergency management teams. Adequate funding and clear guidelines would help ensure they can be successfully implemented and maintained.

Hibberd acknowledges the importance of taking responsibility for her own safety, while noting that lack of information about available resources can leave her “feeling isolated and alone”.

“I have rung the fire brigade, SES, rural fire brigade as part of my current and previous storm and bushfire preps,” she says. “They say they will come out and assess [the] property and give me ideas as to what is important for me to fix, but they don’t turn up.”

The Sydney University–ASB report showed 57 per cent of people with disability face barriers accessing disaster risk-reduction information. Hibberd believes the most important thing in a DIDRR policy is communication, including things such as sign language and subtitles for broadcasts. She suggests community information days could include talks from experts about alternative supplies for power and water. Warning systems could be “stretched out slightly”, to allow people with disability more time to adequately prepare. Community phone call check-ups would be a good idea, she says, as would “more detailed checklists of how to really survive for five days minimum without assistance”.

Changes are happening. In October 2016, the New South Wales and Commonwealth governments funded a project inviting people with disability and their parents/carers to participate in two workshops. One focused on discussing experiences of natural disasters; the other on improving their capability to prepare for and respond to them. The same project funded development of local emergency management guidelines for DIDRR in NSW.

Hibberd says the NDIS has been helpful. Malpass agrees that programs such as the NDIS and All Abilities Queensland are promising, “but we need to make sure that individuals with disabilities are in those conversations”.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 15, 2019 as "In case of emergency".

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Sophia Auld is a freelance writer and editor based on the Sunshine Coast.

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