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This summer’s bushfire crisis has had a profound impact on people with disabilities, highlighting the urgent need for changes to the national disability strategy. By Tim Rushby-Smith.

Disability and climate disasters

The Franklins’ home in Batemans Bay was destroyed by bushfire on New Year’s Eve.
Credit: Supplied

It was the bats that made Greg Franklin realise New Year’s Eve was going to be bad. Everyone in the area knew the fire was coming, but no one was sure where it would go and how bad it would be. As the blaze pushed towards Batemans Bay, nature was sounding its own warning. “On the night before the fire the bats were going crazy,” Greg recalls, “flying around between the trees in places they had never been before.”

The Franklin family lived in a five-bedroom house in Surf Beach, a leafy suburb of detached homes on generous blocks just south of Batemans Bay. Greg spent December 30 watching for alerts from the New South Wales Rural Fire Service. Evacuation seemed inevitable, but leaving the house was always going to be a difficult process for the Franklins.

“We’re a fairly complex family,” Greg says. “Both my wife, Fiona, and I have a psychosocial disability. Joshua, our eldest, has autistic spectrum disorder, as does our daughter Emily. We also have three other children, so preparing in case the worst happened meant we couldn’t have the usual ‘everyone gets their precious things’ – that would be too complicated for Josh.”

On the morning of December 31, the threat escalated dramatically.

“We could see the fire coming down the ridge,” Greg says. “I said to Fiona, ‘Get the kids and go.’ But even though we’d prepared them as best we could, Joshua went into meltdown. Emily started to follow suit and, of course, the other kids followed that. Just getting them out to the car and away was a major exercise.”

In the five years they had lived in Batemans Bay, the Franklins had worked hard to make the family home a comfortable space for all of them, complete with a therapy room. Josh’s and Emily’s bedrooms were carefully set up to be sensory-friendly – special lighting, weighted blankets and a black tent with headphones. As the front approached, Greg stayed behind to try to save the house. “I couldn’t,” he says. “I saw it go up, it was all gone in 10 minutes.”

The fires that raged through Mogo and Batemans Bay that night were terrifying. Hundreds of homes and businesses were razed. The apocalyptic scenes, captured on phones by residents and fire refugees, trickled out into the wider world.

Fiona Franklin and her five children made their way to the local beach, the first evacuation point, but it was full and both Josh and Emily were “stimming”, a protective response to overstimulation. The family rerouted to the evacuation centre in Hanging Rock, before they were moved to Club Catalina in Batemans Bay.

Just before the power went off, Fiona texted Greg to say where she was – then the radio reported it was too late to leave Surf Beach, and that lives had been lost.

“It was emotional when I turned up,” Greg says.

From Club Catalina, the family moved again, this time to the State Emergency Service disaster recovery centre, housed on the upper floor at the local cricket club. It was packed, with no light and no power, which meant no lift. Those with mobility issues were unable to get up to the main room and instead were housed in a nearby campus library.

“We slept on the floor for the first night,” Greg says. “There was no quiet area for Josh and Emily… Josh had none of his sensory supports to help calm him.”

Each time the family registered for support with a new agency, they had to retell their story. “I’d also have to explain every time that my kids have autism,” Greg says. When Josh had a crisis in the loud, open disaster recovery centre, no one working there came to assist.

“Because the people who work there weren’t aware that he [had] autism spectrum disorder. There was no sharing [of information],” Greg says.

The Franklins’ story highlights the intense impact of the summer’s destructive bushfires on people living with a disability or a chronic health condition in affected areas. For these people, displacement and uncertainty can have added complexity. In some cases, they can be life-threatening.

Peg Ludwig is a senior manager with The Disability Trust (TDT), an organisation that provides support and services – including residential group homes – for people with a disability. On January 4, when a large fire broke out in Moss Vale, four TDT houses within a couple of kilometres had to evacuate. They were taken to the local services club, returned home and then evacuated again just a few hours later – only for the club itself to be evacuated. By then, there were 25 residents in need of help. The official plan was to evacuate everyone to the Mittagong RSL, but it was midnight and the club was extremely busy. So TDT staff made the call to take their residents to the organisation’s office nearby.

“It worked really well,” Ludwig says. “They brought their bedding with them and everyone slept on the floor. It was a nice, calm atmosphere.”

It was decided that the residents should be moved to the Illawarra, where the trust managed to house them in a day centre and an Airbnb. “They were pretty tired but aware that they would be safe there,” Ludwig explains. “It was a good respite for them to be away from the fires and all the talk around them. The good thing about being a large organisation is that we had a contingency plan and the resources to provide accommodation.”

Meanwhile, the Franklin family ended up in a motel, then went on to temporary accommodation in a caravan park. “We explained that we needed more space so that we could separate the kids to calm Josh,” Greg says. “That didn’t happen.”

After three weeks, the Franklins managed to find rented accommodation with the help of the organisation Find A Bed.

“All the government would do is to find you emergency temporary accommodation. Then it was up to you to find a house, which is really difficult. Everyone’s had trouble with that,” Greg says. “We’ve also lost all of Josh’s assistive technology that gave him physical and sensory outlets to help him with self-regulation.”

Things only started to improve when Jen Ruse, an advocacy manager at People with Disability Australia (PWDA), took on the family’s case.

“I’m articulate, I’m intelligent, but I was up against that personal situation and I just couldn’t do it,” Greg says. “The state government needs to fund those advocates.”

Ruse is now helping the family to negotiate the complex web of support that’s available through the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) and non-government charities. But even she is finding the lack of information frustrating.

“[The National Disability Insurance Agency] have advised us that money is available to fast-track the replacement of assistive technology lost in the fires, but that information isn’t getting through to NDIS managers on the ground,” Ruse says.

“I spoke to an outreach manager who told me that all replacement equipment still had to be assessed by an occupational therapist. I managed to convince her otherwise. People need to stand their ground because there is a process and others are being supported through the scheme.”

For Jeff Smith, chief executive of PWDA, the experience of the past few weeks underlines how crucial it is that people with disabilities have access to up-to-date information in a variety of formats, including Auslan and accessible easy-read versions for those with limited reading skills. Without these things, a disconnect between support and those who need it is inevitable.

Moreover, Smith says, Australia needs a national disability strategy that has climate change front and centre. “There’s been consultations on the next iteration of the national disability strategy, and climate change is at best peripheral,” he says. “It would be a travesty for the national disaster plan not to take climate change head-on now, and an embarrassment if in 10 years … we look back and see that we didn’t even think about climate change in 2020 after we had devastating bushfires.”

Greg Franklin also sees a need to review our disaster response, although he acknowledges this will be a long and complex process.

“The support needs to be co-ordinated at a local level, not a national or state level. It needs to be independent, but then the state needs to work to the direction of a local body,” he says. “The issues with the NDIS have also been magnified. It’s going to be brilliant once we fix it, but first we’ve got to fix it. They need to get people with disabilities involved. People who have been through it.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 15, 2020 as "Fire escapes". Subscribe here.

Tim Rushby-Smith
is a freelance journalist based on the South Coast of NSW, and author of Looking Up and Beyond the Break.

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