Preparing for Hurricane Irma: What social workers need to know about people with disabilities

Images of disability symbols
Remember the spectrum of disabilities as you prepare for Hurricane Irma (Image credit: The Feminist Wire)

The state of Florida has called for 17,000 volunteers to help out with the post-Irma recovery process, but there’s one population that are often forgotten in the crush of storm evacuation and disaster recovery efforts, and that is people with disabilities. Recently, at a social work conference, I was told “disability is not a social work issue,” which is a shocking statement, given that over one-fifth of the United States’ population has a disability according to the Centers for Disease Control. All too often, people with disabilities are left feeling invisible in our society – and as helping professionals, we need to right this wrong. In order to begin to do this work, especially given the impact of Hurricanes Irma and Harvey on our country, here are two things helping professionals need to know about people with disabilities.

Storms such as Irma and Harvey are very likely to have a disproportionate impact on people with disabilities – see Professor Rabia Belt’s commentary here. During Hurricane Katrina and surely many others, it came to light that many people with disabilities were unable to evacuate due to mobility limitations, equipment needs, staffing needs, requirements for service animals or just having a low income. We know that people with disabilities are much more likely to live in poverty in this country, and this can really take a toll during storm evacuations and disaster recovery. In fact, during Katrina, 155,000 people with disabilities aged 5 and up lived in the cities hardest hit by the storm – and unfortunately, a disproportionate amount of Katrina’s fatalities involved this population. Helping professionals need to see people with disabilities – and seek them out prior to, during and after a storm.

Given these realities, it is important to design disaster preparedness and recovery efforts so that they are accessible to all – including people with disabilities in keeping with the Americans with Disabilities Act. In the disability community, stories about people with mobility limitations, nursing needs and service animals being refused shelter or assistance are making the rounds. We must do better. The National Council on Disability wrote an extensive report on the topic of disaster preparedness, and it provides great guidance for disaster planning and recovery efforts – be prepared! There is also specialized guidance on how to create accessible programs and spaces for people with disabilities during and after a devastating storm in a way that promotes self-determination. People with disabilities do not want to be victims, and helping professionals should support their self-determination during evacuations, sheltering and recovery. Portlight Inclusive Disaster Strategies, an organization based in the southern United States, is the go-to source for assistance with people with disabilities during these storms. Please use their hotline for assistance with your clients with disabilities 1-800-626-4959. Their motto is drawn from the disability civil rights movement, “nothing about us without us.” As you gear up to provide help before, during and after these storms, keep this motto in mind and let it guide your practice. We can do better for people with disabilities, and we will.

A teacher’s response to Charlottesville for social workers in practice with people with disabilities

White nationalists from Jerusalem Post
Photo description: Segment of a large crowd of white men holding torches at a nighttime “Unite the Right” rally organized by White nationalists and Nazis on August 12, 2017. (Image from the Jerusalem Post)

I am currently teaching a course on social work practice with people with disabilities.  The course uses an intersectional lens, acknowledging the fact that people have many intersecting social identities that can result in varying types of privilege and oppression.  As such, I had to provide some venue for my students to address the Charlottesville violence and hate speech.  The following is a discussion prompt I provided for them to respond to, and I thought other social work educators might be interested in seeing this so that they could use it and/or modify it for their own courses.  Feedback welcome!

Discussion prompt: As we are part of a course on social work practice with people with disabilities in the United States of America, I would be remiss not to address the events of this past weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia. As you have already likely gathered, there are important links between the White nationalist/Nazi actions in Virginia, and the work we do as social workers with people with disabilities – who often have intersecting marginalized social identities. Many of the perspectives held by members of White nationalist/Nazi groups are clearly identifiable as racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-Semitic and even Eugenic in nature.  Therefore, as social workers practicing under our particular Code of Ethics, we need to respond. If you need some quick resources to learn more about the dynamics that led to the Charlottesville rally and violence, you can check out the “Charlottesville Syllabus” at this link.

As disability-aware social workers training to view the world with an intersectional lens, we need to acknowledge and act on what has happened in Charlottesville. That means that we need to engage in discussions – often difficult in nature – with our families, our co-workers and with our clients. Let’s start with our work with clients. One prominent disability civil rights activist, Rebecca Cokley, has noted that when terrorist incidents like this occur, people with disability count the minutes until ableist claims about the ‘crazy’ person who engaged in terrorist acts roll in. That may be an important place for you to start a conversation with a client with a disability in a week like this one. In this essay, Ms. Cokley points out another important link between disability and trauma.  She calls for the disability community (and disability service providers) to reach out to those whose disabilities came about as a result of trauma, such as the people who were injured and impaired by the car driven by the White nationalist/Nazi from Ohio. Her essay is short, easy to read and compelling and you can find it here.

It is also important to remember, however, that our work is not just direct care work. Remember, the NASW Code of Ethics states that we must fight for social justice, as it is a core value in our profession. We need to do more than discuss these difficult topics amongst ourselves, we also need to take a stand on them. I am fond of the idea that if we are not part of the solution, we are part of the problem. It is important to move beyond ideas of ourselves as “good” people, and work towards actively addressing the webs of oppression that exist in our world, little bit by little bit. Here is an example about how ADAPT, the national disability civil rights organization, has taken a stance on the events in Charlottesville. Where might you be able to stake your claim to your own stance?  Check out these ideas for 10 ways to fight hate from the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Finally, I want to leave you with a challenging set of questions. Although there are many facets to the NASW Code of Ethics, let us remember that the mission of the social work profession is rooted in a set of core values, including the idea that there is dignity and worth in every person.  How would you respond to a client with a disability who actively identified as a White nationalist/Nazi if you were to be assigned such a client today? What if she didn’t want to work with you because you were a woman of color?  What if she had been arrested for street fighting during the “Unite the Right” rally and was open about her wish to “hurt Leftists?”  Based on your training thus far in this social work program, how would you approach your work with this client?

Please leave your comments about this discussion prompt and how it might be improved or expanded upon.  All feedback is welcome.