Disability groups call for representation in emergency preparation and response

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An open letter from advocacy networks urges politicians to address the disproportionate risk Australians with disability face in disasters and emergencies.

Australians living with disability experienced significant impacts and disproportionate risks to their safety and well-being during recent floods in New South Wales and Queensland, as well as emergencies such as COVID-19, bushfires, droughts and cyclones.

An open letter written by People With Disability Australia and the Queensland With Disability Network, and signed by more than 30 disability advocacy community leaders, calls for a national approach to ensure that Australians with disabilities are included across all levels of policy, practice and research.

The response should be co-designed with people with disability, says the letter. “It is critical that this happens in partnership with industry, emergency and disaster management, and government.

“Collaborative and inclusive research must be used to guide decisions and actions to ensure safety, health and well-being for all Australians when disasters strike,” it continues.

Brendon Donohue, a blind resident of a community housing complex in South Brisbane, told reporter Baz Ruddick he felt “alone and forgotten” as his building flooded in February. During the flood, building elevators broke down, an intercom connecting him to a 24-hour concierge was out of action and the entrance to the building was temporarily moved.

“Nobody thought to come and even show me where that entrance door was,” Donohue said. “Even if I had to go out or needed to evacuate I would not have been able to get out of the building because the front door entrances were not working… I had no faith in what would happen if we did have to evacuate the building.”

The information for residents was communicated in a visual way that was not accessible for Donohue, and building management was only contactable during office hours.

Donohue’s ordeal highlights but a few of the issues that need to be addressed, especially as the climate crisis promises an increase in extreme weather events such as floods and bushfires.

In the lead-up to a Federal Election, the advocacy groups’ letter has two recommendations for politicians of all sides. The first is the development of a national plan and roadmap, which should include the foundation of a National Disability Inclusive Disaster Risk Reduction Reference Group and and consistent national standards for emergency management, additional service provider capacity and policy guidance around shared and defined responsibilities in a disaster.

The second recommendation includes investment in multi-sector targeted responses underpinned by collaborative and inclusive research to uncover information, resources and support for people with disability to develop their leadership and own individual emergency disaster plans – policy changes that ensure those with disabilities are included in emergency management decision-making. For sector providers, it should ensure the capability to build the capacity of the disability and community services sector.

Other signatories of the letter include leading representatives from Women With Disabilities Australia, Children and Young People with Disability Australia, Blind Citizens Australia, First People Disability Network and Australian Red Cross, among others.

Photo by Ricky Rew on Unsplash

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