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COVID-19 as Disability Genocide:
How society fails disabled people during disasters

Original Version by Julia Watts Belser

Plain Language Translation by Reid Caplan

A conversation between Marcie Roth and Julia Watts Belser

July 1, 2022

Table of Contents:

How do disabled people help each other in disasters when the government doesn’t?

Julia:  Whether or not someone lives through a disaster shouldn’t have to do with luck or money. It’s a great thing that people want to help others in disasters. The kindness of one person can save lives. But we can’t rely on that to save everyone’s lives in disasters. We need a better strategy.

Some of the most important work on disaster and disability comes from groups of disabled people. But they don’t get enough money to do the work they want to do. Most of that money comes from small donations from people like you and me. The government usually doesn’t help.

Marcie:  I think about that all the time. Leaders in the disability justice movement have helped so much in disasters. They have helped raise money for disabled people to live through disasters. But they shouldn’t have to raise money. Disabled people shouldn’t have to fill in for the government.  It is the government’s job to help! 

In Houston, there was a really bad winter storm. Thousands of people lost electricity and water. I work with a group called the Partnership for Inclusive Disaster Strategies. After the storm, the Houston Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities called us. They asked us to help get bottles of water for 12,000 disabled people. The government came to a small organization run by disabled people. And it was up to us to find water for disabled people to drink.

It became our job, our responsibility to our fellow disabled siblings. We had to find ways to fix things where the government failed. And we wanted to call out how awful that was! But at the same time, 12,000 people with disabilities needed water. So while we were showing how angry we were, we—

Julia:  (finishing Marcie’s sentence) —You were also trying to find the water.

Marcie:  Exactly. We had to rely on the kindness of strangers. And if that storm happened again today, would that change? No. Nothing has changed. We would still need to ask for donations. We’d need money from everyday people to keep disabled people alive through disasters.

Julia:  That story you just told about finding water made me think of another problem. Groups led by disabled people almost always don’t get enough money. But they’re the people working on the ground when a disaster happens. They’re the ones getting supplies like water to disabled people. They’re doing some of the most important and life-saving work.

I think it’s so frustrating, and I don’t know what to do about it. It’s the government’s job to protect disabled people in disasters. But I don’t know if I can trust the big groups that the government gives the most money to. I don’t know if those bigger groups will actually help disabled folks. 

Marcie:  You’re absolutely right, Julia.  I still work with many bigger groups that get a lot of money. They don’t even think about how to make their meetings accessible for disabled people.

Julia:  So these groups don’t even have a plan to make their meetings accessible. If they won’t even do that, how will they plan to help disabled people if a disaster happens?

Marcie:  People in power make choices that affect everyone’s lives. In disasters, disabled people have to live with the results of those choices. So we have to make sure people in power get to hear from us. They need to hear from people who have lived experience with disability. 

We have to listen to disabled people. Not because it’s the right thing to do, even though it is. And not because the law says so, even though it does. But because listening to disabled people helps everyone.

Edited by Lucy Child, Amanda Chu, and Julia Watts Belser

Image Description: Photo of Marcie Roth. She is a smiling, older, disabled white woman with grey curly hair and red glasses. She is 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. 

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“COVID-19 as Disability Genocide: How planning for emergencies fails disabled people during disasters – a conversation between Marcie Roth and Julia Watts Belser.”  Plain Language Translation by Reid Caplan.  Disability and Climate Change: A Public Archive Project. July 1, 2022.