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Disability Wisdom for Disaster Response

Climate change intensifies natural disaster.  Hurricanes, tsunamis, wildfires, and other weather crises are growing more powerful and more frequent.  When a disaster strikes, disabled people are at particular risk.  Shelters and evacuation plans are often inaccessible, designed without disabled people in mind.  Disaster warnings systems rarely include a full range of communication methods, leaving Deaf and disabled communities without access to crucial early information.  Most first responders have limited experience working in partnership with disability communities, leaving them less prepared to serve disabled people well in crisis.

Disaster exacerbates social inequality.  Those with the fewest resources are almost always the ones hit hardest by the storm, the ones least able to prepare for the blow and to bounce back after crisis.  Ableism, compounded by racism, classism, and other intertwined systems of oppression, means that disability communities contend with systemic poverty, inaccessibility, and a lack of political representation.  Disaster recovery efforts rarely center disabled people.  And without disabled voices?  Rebuilding tends to create a less accessible world.

In this strand, we talk with disability activists and disabled first responders working to change these dynamics.  We explore how disability-led disaster response can help save disabled people’s lives in the aftermath of natural disaster.  Disabled first responders tap their own disability expertise to locate and support individuals most affected by crisis—both to respond to immediate needs and to build long-term supports for more sustainable and disaster-resilient communities.  We examine the root causes of disabled people’s vulnerability during crisis, and we consider political and practical shifts that can help build a more accessible world.

The Conversations

Germán Parodi in conversation with Julia Watts Belser

A black and while image of a short blonde-haired black female who is an above-the-knee amputee. She is sitting on the ground with her eyes closed, with her right leg bent with right hand touching her leg. On her left, she hugs her prosthetic leg, resting her head on the socket.

Erin Brown in conversation with Julia Watts Belser 


Photo of Marcie Roth, a smiling, older, disabled white woman with grey curly hair and red glasses wearing a black top, colorful scarf and a pin that says "Disability Power and Pride." She is standing in front of a sign reading Forbes 50 Over 50.

Marcie Roth in conversation with Julia Watts Belser