Researchers have reminded authorities and elected representatives that the single biggest barrier to the safety and well-being of people with disabilities is their exclusion from decision making, after a NSW Parliament Report into the 2022 floods failed to mention people with disabilities.
Disabilities advocate and researcher Michelle Villeneuve from University of Sydney says responding effectively to the support needs of people with disability in emergencies means making sure they are at the table. She suggests that their support needs have to be central to the development and review of emergency management response and recovery arrangements.
“We perpetuate risk when we omit consideration of the support needs of people with disability and carers in any post-disaster reviews and recommendations.”
The 2022 eastern Australia floods are still front of mind for many who experienced it, with people still homeless or struggling to rebuild their life months later.
But a new study published in BMJ Open which looked at the 2017 Northern Rivers Flood, found that the group we should be paying particular attention to are those living with disability and their carers.
The researchers from the University of Sydney documented the experiences of 2,252 people affected by the 2017 Northern Rivers flood event. Of those, 164 were people with a disability and 91 were carers. The team found that the flood event compounded existing physical and mental health issues and people with disability and carers were more severely affected by the flood event.
The team is hoping that the findings could help inform recovery efforts for the 2022 Eastern Australia floods, and future flood events.
“The severity and frequency of floods is likely to increase – attention to the public health consequences of extreme weather events is urgently needed, especially for people with disability and carers,” said lead author Dr Jodie Bailie from the University of Sydney.
“The study identified multiple accessibility and public health issues which still persist – preventing vulnerable people from receiving the support they need.”
People with disability and their carers were twice as likely to have their homes flooded. This is potentially because housing in flood prone areas is generally more affordable.
They were also four times more likely to be displaced, with a lack of access to safe long or short- term housing for more than six months.
Six months after the flood, many people with disability or carers were either highly distressed or and had up to three times the odds of probable PTSD.
“Nobody should be left behind during emergencies and disasters,” said Associate Professor Villeneuve.
“This study shows more than ever, people with disability and carers need to be equal partners when designing impactful policy and resources that truly benefit them. Only then can real development and change occur.”
The study also revealed people with disability and carers often felt they were left to fend for themselves during and after the flood event. This included access to financial disaster relief, healthcare or social services. Long-term isolation and disruption to usual support networks also contributed to long-term mental health impacts and distress.
One of the greatest challenges was how evacuation information was issued, often failing to take into account the needs of people with disability. One participant said deaf people were given oral directions that were not accompanied by sign language, and some reported not being able to hear warning sirens. These communication barriers affected how quickly people responded to the need to evacuate.
A lack of affordable accommodation for displaced people with disability and carers, which resulted in them living in unsafe accommodation which often had mould or structural damage.
“Floods expose and exacerbate existing social inequalities for people with disability and carers. We must ensure people with disability are included at all stages, including preparedness, response and recovery,” said Dr Bailie.
“Carers play a vital role in providing support for people with disability and yet their experiences during disasters and its impact have received very limited attention.”
Jacinta Bowler is a science journalist at Cosmos. They have a undergraduate degree in genetics and journalism from the University of Queensland and have been published in the Best Australian Science Writing 2022.
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