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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:

Why should more disabled people get jobs in disaster work?

Julia:  You want to see more disabled people get jobs in disaster work, right?  Can you tell us more about why that is important?

Marcie:  I’m a person with a disability myself, and a parent of adults with disabilities. I’m a grandparent of a three-year-old with a disability, and best friends with so many other people with disabilities. I’ve learned that disabled people are masters at problem-solving.  We have to be.  We do the Plan A, Plan B, Plan C thing all the time. 

That makes me an expert about certain things. I can guess when a problem might happen, and know how to solve that problem. That makes me a great person to go to in an emergency. It’s not like I have magical powers. I’ve just had to work on figuring out what might go wrong before it happens. 

I’ll give you an example. I have a friend who works on an upper floor of a building. She uses a power chair. One day, the power went out in her building. It wasn’t even a big emergency, just an ordinary power outage.  But it was a Friday afternoon.

Julia:  Emergencies like that always happen on Friday afternoon, don’t they?

Marcie:  These things always happen at the worst possible moment.  So the emergency workers say, “Don’t worry. We’ll carry you downstairs.” 

And she asks, “What about my chair?” They tell her, “We can’t get your 350-pound chair down this many stairs. We’re gonna have to wait for the power to come back on for that.” 

But you know, it’s Friday afternoon.  The weekend is coming. No one’s going to be back in that building until Monday morning. What exactly is she supposed to do without her chair until then? 

Julia:  As a wheelchair user myself, I think about that all the time.  But disaster planners forget about the technology disabled people use. They don’t think about how important our wheelchairs or our equipment are.

Marcie:  That’s exactly right.  There’s no plan for what happens if someone loses their equipment in a disaster.

Julia: That’s just one example, of course.  When it comes to disaster situations, there is often no plan for disabled people. There’s no plan to make sure we get the services we need during disasters. There’s no plan for how we can get the information we need to live through disasters. 

Marcie:  A good example to show this problem is about communication. After a disaster, the government usually has press conferences. These conferences give information about the disaster to ordinary people. 

In the first press conferences during a disaster, there’s often no sign language interpreter. Disability activists yell at the government until interpreters get brought in. But that doesn’t change that interpreters were not there at the beginning. Deaf people still missed the information from the first press conferences. 

To really serve the community, you have to think about the needs of lots of different groups. You have to think about how everyone will get what they need. That means thinking about different kinds of disabilities. That means thinking of people who might get left out, like families with children, or people with service animals. Thinking about disaster plans that work for everyone takes lived experience.  

When disabled people get to be leaders, our lived experience saves lives.

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

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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.