Assisting People with Disabilities in Emergency Evacuation

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Assisting People with Disabilities in Emergency Evacuation

Alice Frame, MA - MDHHS Disabilities Health Unit Coordinator

Planning for evacuation is an essential part of emergency preparedness.  Some emergency situations may require individuals to leave a building or area quickly and efficiently, but this is not an easy task for some people.  When putting together emergency evacuation plans, consider the unique needs of all people, such as individuals with disabilities.

People with disabilities may require different types of assistance during an evacuation.  Outlined below are some tips for helping people with various kinds of disabilities at each step in the evacuation process.

Step 1. Explain what is happening 

  • If someone has low vision or blindness: verbally explain the situation as fully and efficiently as possible. The individual cannot see the emergency happening, so all important information must be conveyed verbally.
  • If someone is deaf or hard of hearing: if possible, turn a light on and off to gain to alert the individual to your presence. If the power is out, use a flashlight or cellphone. Write a note telling the person what is happening, that he or she should evacuate, the nearest evacuation route, and where the person should go once evacuated.
  • If someone has a cognitive or intellectual disability: briefly explain the situation without including excess detail. It’s important that emergency personnel introduce themselves, explain that they are there to help and how. It should be simple, for example: For example, “My name is John and I’m here to help you. I’m a police officer and I’m here to help you get away from the flooding.”

Step 2: Assist with evacuation if needed 

  • If someone uses a mobility aid, such as a cane or a wheelchair: allow the person to inform the rescuer of their own mobility needs. The person will likely be able to say exactly what help they need to evacuate. If possible, bring the wheelchair or mobility aid, so the individual can regain their independence once evacuated. With non-motorized chairs, it may be possible to evacuate the person while they are seated in the chair. This likely won’t be possible with motorized chair, which can be incredibly heavy. Users may know if certain parts can detach to be carried more quickly and easily.
  • Regardless of disability status or type, always ask an individual before helping. That person is the best judge of his or her needs. Make sure to listen and respect the answer.
  • If someone has low vision or blindness: Offer the individual your arm for guidance and verbally describe what is happening as evacuation occurs. Make sure to verbally announce any obstacles in the person’s path.
  • If someone is deaf or hard of hearing: provide written evacuation instructions so the individual understands where they need to go. Stay within line of sight during evacuation.
  • If someone has a cognitive or intellectual disability: break instructions into smaller parts and remain as calm as possible to avoid confusing or overwhelming the individual.

Step 3: Ensure the person is not alone – Take the person to safety in the company of a trusted person so they are not alone. Individuals with sensory limitations may feel isolated or unaware of what is happening, and individuals with intellectual disabilities or cognitive limitations may wander and become lost.  

Above all else, ask the individual how you can best support them during and following an evacuation.