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The Need for Disaster Response Plans for Children with Disabilities

It seems that every time our nation experiences a major disaster, we learn more about the gaps in our emergency response system. Hurricanes Harvey and Irma were no exception, and one gap the storms revealed is in how we assist people with disabilities, including young children, in the event of an emergency.

Evacuation in the wake of a disaster is a challenge in and of itself, as individuals navigate through debris to get to a shelter or other safe place. Imagine how much harder that is for people with physical mobility issues. Or for people with special medical needs who rely on equipment like oxygen tanks that must be electrically powered. Or for children with sensory issues who experience overload when evacuated to shelters that are crowded, noisy, and brightly lit.

We tend not to think about issues like that in advance of a disaster—but we should. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that 1 in 5 Americans have a disability. That includes individuals who are wheelchair-bound or have other mobility issues, those with impairments in vision or hearing, and those with developmental delays. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, “Children with disabilities are particularly vulnerable during emergency situations, and caregivers need to be proactive …” Caregivers include parents, child care providers (an estimated 61 percent of children under 5 years of age are in some type of child care arrangement), and other early care and education professionals.

The Child Care and Development Block Grant Act of 2014 requires child care providers to have emergency response plans. Those plans should be developed in a way that takes into account the needs of each child in a program, including any child with a disability. Additionally, children with disabilities in child care settings should have care plans that include information about the child’s medical condition or diagnosis, any modifications to the environment that the child needs, and any special procedures to be followed in the event of an emergency. This applies to all child care settings, whether center- or home-based.

There are resources available to providers who need help developing or implementing disaster response plans. Child Care Aware® of America’s Emergency Preparedness page features tools, publications, and resources. The Center for Children with Special Needs has an online resource written for parents that could also be useful to providers, Emergency Preparedness for Children with Special Needs. Ready.gov, the Centers for Disease Control, and the Red Cross all have information that can help individuals with disabilities plan for disaster response. Those sites are targeted to adults with disabilities, but the information can be helpful for caregivers as well.

We are powerless over when and where disaster strikes. We can all play a part, though, in how our nation responds—particularly towards the 20 percent of Americans, young and old, with disabilities.

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