Disability-Inclusive Disease Outbreak Preparedness

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Disability-Inclusive Disease Outbreak Preparedness

Alice Frame, MA - Disabilities Health Unit Coordinator - MDHHS

Accessibility and inclusion should be an integral part of the emergency preparedness and response planning and implementation processes. In the case of disease outbreak or epidemic, advanced planning leads to better outcomes in meeting the unique needs of at-risk populations. The more planning done ahead of time, the more effective the response efforts will be in meeting those needs. People with disabilities may be more likely to contract certain diseases and illness due to pre-existing conditions, immunosuppressant medications, or other contributing medical or lifestyle factors.  Here are a few things to keep in mind when creating outbreak and epidemic preparedness plans:

Communication – in the event of an outbreak or epidemic, communication with the public is key to fighting the spread of disease and treating – when possible – existing cases. It’s important to remember that not everyone processes information or communicates in the same way. People with different kinds of disabilities have varied methods of communication and interaction. For example, someone who is deaf or hard of hearing will not be able to hear radio segments about the outbreak. People who are blind or visually impaired will not see signs or brochures with the information.  Ensure that public information dissemination is diverse to reach people of all abilities.

  • Communicate information in multiple formats – this can include visually, in print, verbally, and more. Make sure all people can effectively process the information in at least one format.
  • Communicate in various locations/mediums to ensure people with disabilities will be exposed to the message. Work with community and state-based programs and organizations that serve or employ people with disabilities to identify the best places to reach the population with messaging. This may include pharmacies, group homes, service providers, or non-profit organizations – likely dependent on the geographic area where the outbreak is taking place.

Medication/vaccination dissemination – when disseminating prophylaxis or vaccinations, keep in mind many people with disabilities face barriers to access.

  • Financial barriers – people with disabilities are more likely to be of low socioeconomic status and may not have the ability to purchases medications or vaccines if there is a cost associated. The cost for the medication can vary from free, to no-cost, to being covered by a person's insurance.  Ensure the free and no cost options are communicated as widely as possible so that those who need it know how to obtain it.
  • Transportation barriers – many people with disabilities do not drive or can’t travel easily and may not be able to go to medication pick up locations. All medication and supply dispensaries and vaccination locations should be along public transportation lines for individuals who cannot drive or don’t have access to a vehicle. Delivery options can also be very helpful for individuals unable to travel.
  • Physical barriers – being able to get to a location is one barrier but being able to enter and navigate a location is another. All locations used for dissemination of emergency supplies and medications must be accessible. All people – including those with disabilities – should be able to physically access the building or area. Accessible parking should also be available.

Points of Dispensing –  a large part of disease outbreak preparedness is ensuring that points of medication dispensing are able to accommodate all types of disabilities.  Treatment areas and shelters should to be accessible for more than just physical disabilities.  For example, people with several types of disabilities may struggle in larges crowds or chaotic situations such as individuals with intellectual disabilities, individuals with autism, or individuals with certain types of mental illness, among others. Therefore, plan to have separate, quiet areas for those individuals to prevent increased stress, anxiety, or violence.

As part of the preparedness process, research what types of disabilities are particularly prevalent in the area. While it’s important to be accessible an inclusive of ALL people with disabilities, some areas have larger communities of people with certain types of conditions and disabilities. For example, if the geographic area includes a school for individuals who are blind, there is likely a significantly larger population of people with visual impairments than average. Plan accordingly.

Include people with disabilities in the planning process to best understanding what their needs may be in the event of an outbreak.