Disabled Seek More Thoughtful Emergency Plans

Katie Savage was shopping at City Place Mall in Silver Spring, Md. in September 2002 when a fire alarm caused the building to be evacuated -- but Savage, who uses a wheelchair, was unable to leave.

Savage said she and seven others were abandoned in the building for an hour for what turned out to be a prank, because they could not use stairs.

"I was really frightened and I had never been so afraid and felt so alone," Savage said Friday at the release of a study by the National Council on Disability (search) on emergency planning for people with disabilities.

The study showed what Savage already knew -- emergency plans often leave disabled people vulnerable.

"If we don't know there is an emergency, or what the emergency is and what to do about it, any emergency plan will be worthless to us," said Cheryl Heppner, executive director of the Northern Virginia Resource Center for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Persons (search).

The report found, among other things, that disaster preparedness measures are mostly designed for people who can move quickly, walk, see and hear, and that people with disabilities are typically left out of the planning process.

"The message that we get is that we're an afterthought and, therefore, expendable," Heppner said in sign language.

The council recommended that the Department of Homeland Security (search) convene a group of disabled people and others to meet regularly with federal officials and offer insight on what improvements are needed and how they can be achieved.

"We've made really incredible amounts of progress," said Daniel W. Sutherland, the Department of Homeland Security's officer for civil rights and civil liberties. But the issue still needs to be a "national priority," he said.

Sutherland said that better preparedness will not only benefit the disabled.

"By addressing this specific population's needs, it will benefit the entire emergency preparedness (search) effort," he said.

Martin Gould, senior research specialist for the council, said that cases like the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, the 2003 blackouts that hit the Northeast, and natural disasters like hurricanes and the Indian Ocean tsunami (search) "underscore for us the need to pay attention to this report."

"These barriers are not new," Gould said. But the study found that new information and lessons learned have not been incorporated into updated emergency plans.

Savage said she hopes to change that, after a recent court victory in the lawsuit she filed against City Place.

A Montgomery County, Md. Circuit Court ruled in December that the Americans with Disabilities Act (search) requires that publicly used buildings consider the needs of people with disabilities in developing emergency evacuation procedures.

"The Constitution says 'we the people', so disabled people, we're part of the Constitution, too," she said.

Savage, 55, who has had rheumatoid arthritis (search) since she was a child, experienced another disaster in 2003 after Hurricane Isabel knocked out her power for four days.

"I was really, really lucky because my P.C.A. (personal care assistant) swung into action," and because she lives on the first floor, she said.

Without power, she could not charge her wheelchair, and the Red Cross (search) food tents were too far for her, she said. So Savage dipped into her "mad money" -- cash she kept in her apartment for the occasional splurge -- to buy take-out food.

Not everyone in her building, which is occupied mostly by elderly people or people with a disability, was as lucky, she said.

"Many people that live in this building were stranded up in their apartments pregnant with fear," Savage said.

Capital News Service contributed to this report.