The University Centre for Rural Health (UCRH) surveyed people with disability and their carers about their experiences during the 2017 flood in the Northern Rivers region of New South Wales. Responses to the survey revealed that natural disasters such as floods, can worsen inequality for people with disability. For example, people with disability and their carers were more likely than others to:

  • still be displaced six months after the flood
  • experience disrupted access to food, support networks and essentials, such as healthcare and social services
  • feel distressed about the flood six months after it happened.

Natural disasters affect everyone, but people with disability are often left behind when these catastrophic events happen. A lack of accessible evacuation transportation and information can leave people with disability feeling isolated and unprotected. Carers, meanwhile, are often underprepared for evacuation. They also described the struggles of finding a home to suit the needs of the people they’re caring for post-disaster. However, there are ways to strengthen support and protection for people with disability through floods, bushfires and other natural disasters.

Accessible information

Providing accessible information before, during and after natural disasters is essential for people with disability. This includes information about:

  • how to prepare for a natural disaster
  • what to do when a natural disaster happens
  • how to evacuate
  • where to seek shelter
  • available supports after a natural disaster. 

Clear information can also help carers and support workers, as they can have a stronger understanding and guidance on how to best support people with disability during natural disasters.

Recent natural disasters in Australia have highlighted that there is still not enough easy-to-understand and accessible information available for people with disability. 

Disability advocacy organisations

Working with peak and local disability advocacy organisations can empower people with disability and their carers to feel supported during times of crisis. Disability advocacy organisations can provide relevant, accessible information to educate people with disability and carers on how to plan for various natural disasters.

People with disability can feel unsupported and isolated when their services or routines have been disrupted. It’s important that during and after a disaster they can access and use a range of supports, such as high-quality care, housing, and daily essentials. This allows people with disability to feel reassured about accessing supports and services they need.

Disability advocacy organisations should be able to provide information that’s clear, easy to read and understand. This can make people with disability feel supported from the beginning, when they’re preparing for a disaster. Organisations should take the time to work with people with disability and ensure they have a strong understanding of their options during and post-disaster.

Mental health support

Natural disasters can have a significant impact on a person’s mental health. For people with disability, however, the risk of prolonged post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health conditions is higher. Mental health services should be trained to identify the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder to support people with disability who have gone through a natural disaster. These services should also encourage and support people with disability to take part in the community, such as volunteering, to reduce the risk of developing mental health issues.

Person-centred emergency plan

Creating a person-centred emergency plan is integral to making sure people with disability aren’t left behind when disaster strikes. Emergency services themselves need to be adequately supported to help those who are more at risk during an emergency. This includes having clear and accessible information, which can ensure people with disability and emergency services have a mutual understanding of how best to support people with disability during times of crisis.

As the climate gets warmer, there is a higher risk of natural disasters occurring in Australia. However, there is also the opportunity for a systemic change to help inform, empower, and support people with disability when natural disasters occur.

You can read more about UCRH’s research on The Conversation website.